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When law and ethics and good journalism combine

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PART 3 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 discussion and next steps.

Editors of the Shakerite have class at 8 a.m., and they had a lot to discuss Sept. 11. Editor Shane McKeon and campus and city editor John Vodrey had the police report showing that what the principal, in his letter to parents, said was an assault had really been classified by the police as a rape.

Now what?

Not only did the staff have to decide how to cover the story but had to do so quickly. The deadline was now, not two weeks away.

Adviser Natalie Sekicky said the print edition of the Shakerite was publishing less frequently, and her staff had adapted well to posting stories and updating them on the news website. “Stories go up quickly and daily,” she said, “during a class period.”

But the night before, as she and McKeon and Vodrey studied the police report, she said she advised them to “cool it on that word.” Talk through all the reasons to use it – or not. That’s why McKeon said he chose to use “sexual assault” in the first news item. Now it was time to talk through what to do now.

The editorial board — McKeon, Vondrey, Julia Scharfstein (web chief) and Allie Harris and Marcia Brown (managing editors) met to discuss the decision. Sekicky said they talked about the need to use the word “rape” in order to clarify the district’s statements from the day before, all of which referred only to assault. She said the girls had more reservations than the boys.

“We went through who would be harmed and what good it would do,”Sekicky said. What was appearing on social media, however, was an issue.  “[The editorial board] also discussed the rumors they had seen in social media overnight as well as the clear effort by some students to create ‘sides’ in this case and to force people to join one or the other.” Some of the social media “facts,” she said were “ridiculous and not worthy of coverage.” Later they decided to include in every story comments from district sources, urging students not to participate in social media speculation, Sekicky said.

The editorial board discussed whether to use the alleged rapist’s name in the story — they had learned it the previous night through social media — and Sekicky said they “reinforced the existing policy of withholding names of minors in criminal situations.”

But they finally agreed an “assault” could just be one student pushing another. A rape, on the other hand, was something quite different and an allegation the school community had a right to know. McKeon updated the story.

Finally, McKeon said, they decided they had to use what they had learned.  “Otherwise we could not have been telling the whole truth,” he said. “Assault” was not an adequate word, and, although they were worried about the girl’s privacy, he said, “It was a bigger concern if it was swept under the rug.”

The staff has not ignored the story. Since the first posting Sept.  12, they have reported the following:

Sept. 11 (with update on Sept. 12)  Student Arrested for Rape at School

Sept 12 District Prepares for Police Investigation, Media Coverage

Sept. 14 Police Chief Lee Outlines Investigative Process

Sept. 17 An Open Letter to Students

Sept. 18 Suspect in Alleged Rape Will Likely Face Expulsion

Oct. 1 Cleveland Rape Crisis Center Continues Scheduled Visits to Health Classroom

Oct. 17 Journalism Organizations Praise Shakerite Coverage

Nov. 1 Parents React to Security Changes

McKeon acknowledged they received “pushback” on the way they covered the situation, but he said, “The staff handled it maturely” and some security changes in the school seem to show what they printed had an impact. That was their whole intent.

 

 

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