Incident at Ohio State holds valuable lessons about storytelling, breaking news

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Reaching your audience is all about telling an engaging story. As technology has evolved, the tools available to tell stories have expanded exponentially. Journalists and other communicators now have the ability use tools that enhance parts of their messages (visual, auditory or text) in ways that didn’t exist even a few years ago. These changes necessitate the need for urgency to publish information, especially when stories are changing minute by minute.

As students at Ohio State were returning from Thanksgiving break, a student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk, got out and began stabbing passers-by. Within minutes, campus police responded and shot the suspect. A university-wide text alert said an active shooter was on campus and students were asked to shelter in place.

This story, which quickly gained national attention, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling and breaking news coverage. This article, told through the perspectives of student editors at The Lantern (Ohio State’s student newspaper) details how the publication’s staff reacted to the news and spent the next few hours and days providing coverage. It’s also illustrative in the lessons it teaches about storytelling.

As a student publication, it’s essential to “own” the coverage of your school. That doesn’t just apply to major breaking news events. It includes the mundane parts of everyday life. But whenever your school is involved in a major news event, your publication needs to be on top of it. Students and others should be able to look to your publication as a primary source of information and updates.

It can be tough to balance the demands of breaking news coverage with the realities of school life, but it’s an essential skill to learn. Create procedures and plans that rely on a chain of command to assign responsibilities when news breaks. You may never have to deal with a school shooting, but other stories demand immediate coverage. Even the students at Ohio State prepared for this very scenario in a class exercise just a few weeks before. Little did they know how soon they’d have to use what they’ve learned.

Storytelling happens now. Audience engagement is at its highest when news first breaks because people are looking for information so they can understand what’s happening. As time passes, they look for more context to enable them to make sense of what’s happened. No matter what type of publication you have, your online presence enables you to keep your audience informed as the story evolves.

First you plan, and then you amend. The Lantern publishes in print several times per week. Tuesday was one of its print days. The staff tore up their plans for the next day’s paper and reworked the layouts to adapt to the breaking story. Their coverage included multi-faceted approaches that spanned a range of digital and print coverage over the following days that not only provided a summary of events but explored reactions and fallout.

Breaking news demands quick thinking. One of the editors dropped what he was doing to get to the scene. Another made the decision to work remotely because commuting back to campus would have proved prohibitive (roads were shut down around campus) and the travel time would have wasted valuable opportunities to cultivate sources and plan coverage with other reporters on the ground.

Any breaking news environment is prone to rumor and confusion. Part of your job as reporters is to dispel rumors and to provide clear, accurate information. Never overstate and be open about what you don’t know. It’s tough sometimes for the truth to win out amid so many conflicting ideas, but it’s a necessary fight. The Lantern staff worked to dispel rumors—that an active shooter was on campus (compounded by the campus text alert), that the shooter had an accomplice, that several students had died, and that someone purposefully pulled a fire alarm to get students outside prior to the attack.

For more guidance, consult On the Media’s guide for breaking news. Planning today will make your job easier when the time arrives to put it to use.

Teach the First Amendment, now more than ever

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Then candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the press and the First Amendment has raised more than a few eyebrows among defenders of free speech during the past year. Everything from threatening to sue publications that printed unfavorable coverage of his behavior or candidacy to insisting he would change libel laws to enable him and others to more easily win lawsuits against the press have all been fair game.

The news business has long been a target of those in governing authority because the press wields the power to question and hold accountable all those individuals and institutions that everyday citizens place faith in to structure and shape their lives. However, it’s precisely that power to question authority that must be staunchly defended.

But his misgivings about the First Amendment don’t stop with the press. Earlier this month in a tweet, he hinted it was unfair for people to protest the outcome of the election. He reversed course on that statement several hours later with another tweet (as noted in the link above). And just this week, he announced in a tweet that flag burning should be illegal and punishable with jail time or possibly the loss of one’s citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that the practice is protected speech.

The freedom to write, speak, worship, assemble and petition can’t be taken lightly because those freedoms—etched in the hallmarks and identity of American democracy—can be eroded and quashed without vigilant defense. A government official’s own feelings, preferences or even ignorance can never supplant the law.

Perhaps some of these claims from the president-elect are more rhetoric than anything else. But it’s troubling when a powerful government official demonstrates such lacking knowledge of the laws and legal principles that protect the opinions of all Americans, especially those expressing dissent.

Press freedom advocates are calling on journalists to exercise more tenacity covering the new administration, and their calls deserve merit. It’s only through concerted, deliberate effort we can defend these liberties. But it can’t end with journalists. All citizens must make the effort to call out baseless claims that represent affronts to basic freedoms. And to do that, they need to understand the law, perhaps not enough to become legal scholars, but they need a working knowledge that enables them to call out falsehoods and overreaches of power.

To all scholastic publication advisers, now is the time to double-down on teaching students about a free press and other free-speech issues. Young people now, more than ever, need to understand the First Amendment’s protections, principles and limitations. That way they can wade through the clog of information and claims that circulate through the news cycle, blogs and social media and can help teach others about the importance of understanding and defending their freedoms.

Teaching about the First Amendment in class is the foundation. Ensure that students learn about court cases like Near v. Minnesota, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, New York Times v. U.S.New York Times v. Sullivan & Snyder v. Phelps. In few other places will students ever be exposed to this material. These seminal cases and others will provide a firm foundation to guide their continued learning and exploration. Help them apply the holdings in those cases to contemporary issues and stories in the news.

Guide students to stay abreast of what’s happening and to understand how the First Amendment and its protections are discussed and interpreted in the news and among conversations online.

And, of course, the best way to teach about freedom is through practice. No better “real-life” simulation of a free press in action exists than a student publication, whether print, broadcast or online. Teach students to do good journalism by asking questions of those in power and seeking accountability. That mindset will serve them well into their adult lives.

Below is a list of links to recent news items and columns that will enable better discussion.

A Call to Action for Journalists Covering President Trump by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Our First Amendment Test Is Here. We Can’t Afford to Flunk It, by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom: Why It Matters, by Mirren Gidda & Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

War Between Trump, Media Seen Escalating With Presidency’s Power, by Gerry Smith, Bloomberg News