In crisis situations, the quick pace of social media posts creates a dilemma for journalists: how to check for accuracy while still reporting with immediacy.
Along with the school district’s assistant superintendent, three Pittsburgh journalists recalled the challenges they faced while covering the April 9, 2014, stabbing at Franklin Regional High School on the day it happened and in the aftermath that traumatized children and adults alike.
More than 20 students and staff members at Franklin Regional in Murrysville were stabbed. Former student Alex Hribal, who was 16 years old at the time, was charged as an adult with 21 counts of attempted homicide.
At a Pennsylvania Press Conference session sponsored by the Pennsylvania AP Broadcasters Association on Saturday morning, the panelists discussed the responsibilities journalists must adhere to when reporting on crisis news — assuring accuracy, respecting those involved and not relying on every post popping up on social media sites.
Bill Rehkopf, Daveen Rae Kurutz and Mike Oliveira knew before 8 a.m. rolled around that April 9 would be anything but a slow news day. They watched one of the most intense days of their careers play out alongside the chaos enveloping the community.
Rehkopf works for WNEW-FM in Washington, D.C., but was an anchor for KDKA radio station in Pittsburgh when the stabbing occurred.
With a daughter attending Franklin Regional, Rehkopf put his possible conflicts aside, marched up to police lines and snapped photos of the scene. He said that during a “breaking news situation, we have to separate the fact from the fiction but also make sure we’re feeding the monster at the same time.”
Franklin Regional School District Assistant Superintendent Mary Catherine Reljac was responsible for preparing staff for crisis situations and also handling public relations for the district.
As the news of the stabbing spread, Reljac said she made sure the students’ best interest was at hand as well as the media’s.
“I don’t think we should ever shut the media down,” Reljac said. “Everybody is trying to do a job. The best way to do that job is to share information in a responsible way.”
Kurutz said she knew it was her job as a Trib Total Media publications reporter to respect the community’s pace and convey its desire to heal quickly rather than rehash what took place.
Though currently working at the Beaver County Times, Kurutz’s prior weekly publication, the Murrysville Star, allowed her to step back from the immediate coverage and highlight the emotions of students involved.
“We did move quickly but we let the public set the pace,” Kurutz said.
The Murrysville Star devoted a majority of its publication the following week to stabbing coverage.
Oliveira is WPXI-TV’s news director and applauded the steps Reljac took to work with the local and national news stations. However, he said journalists cannot allow other news organizations, schools or law enforcement to dictate the way stories are reported.
During the weeks following the stabbing, Oliveira said, “Our cooperation reached a level that I’m not proud of as a journalist.”
“We forget. Expose the story and not be too sensitive,” he said. “The cooperation tends to reach a level of, ‘I don’t work for them.’ ”
There was strong temptation for Oliveira to have his reporters share posts from students’ social media accounts and to get information out to the public before his competitor news stations.
But to avoid reporting inaccuracies, Oliveira said he remembered his duty to the public and waited until his station’s staff collected information on their own before reporting it.
“I think the public, the school and the community don’t realize how much restraint we show because we could go nuts with stuff we see on social media,” he said. “[Journalists] are wrong more often than we used to be and we apologize more than we used to. One irresponsible person in one newsroom can really ruin it for everybody.”