It was supposed to be an easy, end-of-semester story.
My colleague in the news reporting class proposed a list of stories students could do during the last couple of weeks of the semester. One was to find out what was on students’ minds.
A couple of reporters in my section took the assignment and walked around campus gathering random interviews. They were ready to condense the comments into a story.
One of the students approached me between lecture and the writing lab and said she needed to talk to me about the story. She wanted to play one of the interviews she had taped.
I told her I would meet her downstairs in a few minutes. By the time I got into the newsroom, I sensed something different.
“I played it for the whole class, and they’re really creeped out,” she told me.
“Oh, great,” I thought. “I wish she hadn’t done that.”
I motioned her into my office, closed the door and sat down. She played the tape.
Reporter: As a student, what’s your single biggest concern — about anything?
Student: My roommate is still alive.
Reporter: Uh, what do you mean?
Student: I hate my roommate, and I want him to die.
Reporter: OK, do you have a solution for this problem?
Student: Yeah, but I think I might spend some jail time for that.
She said she knew the full identity of the student, including class rank and major.
Virginia Tech ran through my mind as I remembered that several people noticed odd behavior in Seung-Hui Cho, but no one connected the dots to do anything about it.
She asked me what to do. I didn’t know, but I knew I wasn’t going to make a decision on my own. I found my colleague in the dean’s office, and the student played the tape for them.
The dean immediately called the associate dean of student affairs and played the tape for her — twice. She told us to call the campus police department. We played the tape for the officer who answered — twice.
Within minutes, a police officer arrived in the newsroom. I had found a voice recorder in my desk drawer and dubbed a copy of the conversation. I wasn’t sure where this was leading, but I knew no self-respecting journalist would give the whole tape to a cop.
By that time, the other students in the class knew we thought this was serious, and the tension was noticeable. One thing teachers have to be vigilant about is to notice and exploit the teachable moment.
The officer listened to the tape and took the copy with him, along with the identifying information on the student.
I tried to seize the teachable moment and stepped back into the newsroom. One of the four guiding principles in SPJ’s Code of Ethics is to minimize harm, but nothing in the code offered guidance about handling overt threats uncovered during the newsgathering process. The principle of being accountable to others seemed to apply best.
I explained the importance of freedom of the press and that it’s not the job of journalists to investigate for police or to do their homework for them. Turning over any information gathered for a news story should be resisted. Doing so went against every fiber of my being.
“What’s the ethical thing to do here?” I concluded. “Give up the tape,” was the chorus.
“That’s right,” I said, “because this is an issue of public safety.”
During the next few minutes, I met with my colleague to talk about coverage. Should the story mention the threat? The student’s name? How much information should be shared?
Again, we thought of Virginia Tech and whether the newspaper could ultimately be held culpable if the university did not follow up. We decided the story should include the threat, but not the student’s name, and that the information had been turned over to the university police department.
Then my concern turned to my students working the story. I called them both into my office and warned them to consider the reality that the student might confront them. I told them to call 911 if the student approached them in a threatening way and to also let me know.
Within the hour, the officer called to say he’d had a lengthy, in-person conversation with the student, who appeared to be more concerned that my student might get in trouble for doing the interview than about his own fate. The officer said he believed the student was just joking and now knew that was not an appropriate joke.
I hope he was right. We decided not to mention the threat at all in the story. I hope we were right.