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When law and ethics and good journalism combine

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PART 2 OF a 3-PART SERIES

An experienced Ohio newspaper adviser teams up with a former student — who now has a law degree — to teach the staff about using public records. An alleged rape on campus requires student editors to stand their ground accessing information about it. Once they have details about the incident, they have to decide just what they should – or maybe should not – use. It’s a tale that has all the makings of excellent reporting.

 The incident
An unexpected faculty meeting 10th period in mid-September. Police in the halls earlier in the day. All the students at Shaker Heights High School were talking, but the journalism students were more than curious.

“When I came back (to the journalism room) after the meeting, I told them I was forbidden to talk about it,” adviser Natalie Sekicky said. “Yes, there was an incident. Yes, something happened. But we have to be sensitive.”

That was all it took and senior Shane McKeon, editor-in-chief of the  Shakerite , and junior John Vodrey, campus and city editor, in charge of the Web, were on it. They knew they needed the police report – and they also knew it was something they had a legal right to access.

They requested the report twice through the police department’s online system, only to be told the “system is down.

Emily Grannis, Shaker alumna with journalism and law degrees, had been working with the student staff on using records requests and now became their coach from afar. Although she was then living near Washington, D.C.,  she was available by phone and text to help.

She helped them write a formal request with the proper statutory language, she said. When McKeon and Vodrey went to the polics station, they stayed in almost constant contact with her.

They got a series of excuses. When they were told it would take several days for them to get the police report, Grannis supplied them with the Ohio law that said they had the right to inspect the report on the spot.

The next excuse: The officer hasn’t finished filling out the report. “Talk to his supervisor,” Grannis suggested. “Ask if that’s customary.” How long does it usually take? the reporters asked.

And finally: It’s an investigative record, the police said, and not something they had to release. Again, Grannis helped by supplying the citation of the state statute that indicated otherwise. The supervisor then let them have the record.

“In 10 years working to get information from the Shaker Heights Police Department, that’s the first time anyone walked out with the [requested] document in hand,” Grannis said.

“It was fast and furious, back and forth,” Sekicky said of the communication between Grannis and the teens. “And I think she felt vindicated” when they finally got the police report.

But just getting the report didn’t make life any easier. They found out something surprising: Instead of an assault, as the administration had told parents in a letter that day, the police report listed this as a rape.

Back at school, classes were over and most students were gone. “We hashed over a lot of stuff in that room,” Sekicky said. “I urged them to cool it on that word until they could talk through why to run it.”

Because the staff was used to daily news postings on their website, McKeon and Vodrey decided for a middle ground: They used “sexual assault” in that first day’s article and posted that on the website before they went home for the night. They could wait to decide the implications of reporting it was a rape.

“We knew this was bigger than just the two of us as reporters,” McKeon said. They decided to discuss it the next day with the editorial board.

Next: Part 3. The discussion and next steps. Not everyone on the editorial board agreed at first, but eventually McKeon and his staff decided what they had to do — even if it was somewhat painful.

 

 

 

 

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