When a huge, wide-ranging story breaks, a newspaper immediately runs up against two urgent yet conflicting instincts:
1. Get the news online and into print as quickly as possible.
2. Don’t do it before you’re sure you’ve got the facts right.
So it was with the shooting tragedy at Chardon High School that dominated the news last week.
The first part is not very complicated — empty the newsroom, come up with a coverage plan on the fly, send back a cellphone photo and the first bare facts for online as soon as you get there, follow the story, talk to everyone in sight . . . in short, do what news folks do.
The second is trickier.
Naturally, the obvious first question on Monday was: Who fired the shots? One name was on everyone’s lips. But we were dealing with a minor, and The Plain Dealer has a long-standing policy of not naming kids who are in trouble until they are charged as adults — and then, only after authorities have confirmed their names.
On a story like this, though, you can’t follow the rules blindly. So at 12:17 p.m. — long before T.J. Lane was charged but when editors had absolutely no doubt that the 17-year-old was the person who fired the deadly shots — they posted the name on cleveland.com. That brought a few questions from readers who, reasonably, wanted to know why we had published his name before police officially announced it.
The tipping point was an interview reporter Patrick O’Donnell had with Nate Mueller, a 17-year-old junior who was nicked in the ear by one of the shots, saw the flash from the gun and watched his former friend shoot three students he’d been sitting with just moments before. That is about as solid as information gets.
“It was the heinousness of the crime,” said Chris Quinn, the assistant managing editor who directs the paper’s news operation. “Our policy of not naming a child until he is charged as an adult is there so that the mistakes of youth don’t stay with a kid. The permanence of the Internet means that anything we write stays with you forever. But we were sure of our facts, and that policy isn’t going to save someone’s reputation in the case of a mass shooting.”
But when three photos purporting to be the shooter began circulating on blogs and email in the late morning, things weren’t quite as simple.
The photos, one of which showed a slight young man brandishing two handguns, seemed to be legitimate and immediately began popping up on television news coverage, sometimes with the face blurred, sometimes not.
“The Internet Age is terrible for that sort of thing,” said Quinn. “I couldn’t believe the things I was hearing and seeing on TV — unfiltered ru mors just going right on the news. Naturally, you want to post news right away, but we weren’t going to do it before we were sure. So we sent the photos to our reporters on the scene, and they took it to school officials, who said that it wasn’t T.J. Lane.”
The photos never appeared in The Plain Dealer or on cleveland.com. (There’s a reason the newspaper is usually the go-to place for people in search of news they can trust. For the record, cleveland.com had nearly a million unique users on Monday, by far its highest total for a single day.)
Right around the corner
The Plain Dealer had a total of 10 journalists in Chardon covering the story, but two were on the scene right away: Reporter John Horton and photographer Thomas Ondrey each lives within a long stone’s throw of the high school.
Proximity to the story was a double-edged sword for Horton, who grew up in Chardon and went to high school there. He was making breakfast for his two young sons when he got a call from the newsroom and then heard the sirens. His daughter had already left for the middle school, where she is an eighth-grader.
He sent his sons to stay with a neighbor and rushed to the school on foot.
“It’s an odd spot to find yourself in,” he said. “You want to cover the story and let people know what went on, but when I heard all those sirens, my heart just dropped. I know a ton of kids in that building, I know their parents. I knew my daughter was safe, but she was in lockdown in the middle school. You’re trying to assess the situation and do your job, but your heart’s just breaking because you know somebody’s kid is in trouble in there.”
Horton has strong connections to the town and the school. He was a classmate of Nate Mueller’s father. His kids are friends with neighbors of the victims. He once took one of Lane’s cousins trick-or-treating with his children.
He wrote a personal story about the experience for the Wednesday paper, leading with the line of parents he saw filing past the school superintendent, checking on their children’s well-being.
“It was the most chilling thing I’ve ever seen,” Horton said. “People were tossing out a name and just hoping he wouldn’t say, ‘You need to come with me.’ ”
Ondrey was sleeping in on his day off, and first began to suspect that something was wrong when he heard his dog barking, looked out the window and saw a park ranger with a rifle at the end of his driveway.
He pulled his clothes on over his pajamas, went outside to make that photo (which ran on cleveland.com), then jumped in his car and followed the sirens, getting to the school not long after the shootings. It was his photo of a mother and daughter that ran on our Page One — and in many newspapers around the country — on Tuesday.
He hasn’t been in Chardon as long as Horton, but still was stunned at the transformation of his quiet little town. “I’ve never seen such a mass of media and police,” he said. “Trucks, sirens, satellite trucks, cameras, helicopters . . . .”
Like everyone else, though, Ondrey attended to business, staying on the scene until late that afternoon. Still wearing his pajamas under his clothes.