Tahlequah Daily Press

November 18, 2013

Social media means officials must get in front of issues


TAHLEQUAH — For school officials and media personnel, reports of violence on campus create a paradox. When do we tell the public, and what do we say – especially if we’re not quite sure what’s going on?

Social media has changed how everyone reacts to reports of a crisis. Sometimes, the need to let the public know of a possible problem outweighs the need to confirm the problem as fact. Most kids have cell phones, and social media lets them to turn a rumor into a full-blown disaster in seconds. Any school administrator who thinks he can keep a lid on the story is not just fooling himself; he also risks being accused of jeopardizing the well-being of students, and denying parents vital information to which they are entitled.

News professionals in a school district face a similar dilemma. Our own children may be among those under threat, so it’s not just a matter of beating other media to the story. But timing is more critical than ever. Do we wait for official confirmation from the school administrators, or do we run with the story if it comes from other reliable sources?

This situation presented itself week before last, when parents and students began to text, email and send Facebook messages indicating a high school youth had a gun on campus. This followed on the heels of a threat made the previous day. Both situations may have been related to recent revelations that students were posting sexual fantasies and threats against others on so-called “confessional” Twitter accounts.

There’s nothing school or law enforcement officials can do to curtail misbehavior on social media. Even if an account is shut down, another will pop up in its place.

Parents can be vigilant, and revoke cell phone privileges when a youth has proved himself untrustworthy, but that’s no guarantee abuse won’t occur.

What school officials can do is understand how social media works, resign themselves to its sensationalistic nature, and – as Tahlequah Superintendent Lisa Presley put it – get out in front of it to minimize the damage.

The immediacy of the alleged threat at the school required the Press to use its website and Facebook page to inform the public. Though we were initially unable to reach Presley, we did talk to Police Chief Nate King, and provided what details we had at the time. Very shortly, when we connected with Presley, we posted more details, and continued doing so as the story evolved over a span of several hours, until it eventually played out in its entirety.

Although it turned out to be a tempest in a teapot, no one could take a chance. Before the Press logged its initial report, the news was “out there”; parents were already streaming to campus to pick up their kids. The best anyone could do was continue the investigation, and offer updates when things changed, even though this prompted one reader to accuse the Press of trying to conceal its “errors” by eliminating previous posts. In fact, we never deleted any stories from our website; we only removed links on our Facebook page, to avoid confusion for readers, as the story took new twists and turns.

School officials and the media have to walk a fine line. We don’t want to cause needless panic, but we don’t want to withhold details that could later prove critical. And smart administrators will act as partners, rather than telling the media how to manage the flow of information; such actions could be construed as attempts to control the spin, which is frowned upon not just by the media, but by the general public.

King and Presley did a good job of handling the communications aspect of what turned out to be a highly exaggerated incident. There will be other cases like it in the future. All of us will work together to give parents as much information as we can, as quickly as we can, but parents to keep King’s advice in mind: Don’t panic. Kids are prone to mischief, and social media just magnifies it. It’s a new world we live in, and we have to get used to it.