Thursday, May 13, 2021
May 13, 2021

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From the Newsroom: A tough story on a dark night

The Columbian
Published:

I was sitting at home watching “Wheel of Fortune” and talking to the TV when my phone pinged. It was a message from our assistant news editor, Colleen Keller.

“It sounds like police shot a driver. Near 69th was all I could glean.”

Oh, crap.

These stories are always tricky. Friends and family of the victim are going to be upset. Police are going to be on edge. Not much official information will be released, at least at first, but the social media gossip grapevine will be working overtime. Some of the information that’s spread will likely lack context or be untrue, so we will have to be careful not to repeat it.

We can and should go to the shooting scene, but we don’t have a reporter or photographer working at that time of day. It’s very dark, and we are unlikely to be allowed close enough to see what happened. We won’t even know which law enforcement agency to ask for information, because outside agencies investigate these cases.

Add to it the volatility of public opinion over shootings by police — including one that happened in October less than a mile away on the other side of the freeway. And we’re all aware of what transpired in Portland last summer. In my view we have a duty to inform, but not inflame, the public.

What should we report? What shouldn’t we report? And what about the timing? It is all very sensitive.

Even though most of us were at home, the team swung into action. We started on Twitter, where we first post our breaking news. Assistant Metro Editor Jessica Prokop, who reports on and oversees our breaking news, got her coat and boots and drove out to the scene. Unsurprisingly, there wasn’t much to see, and no one to interview. Meanwhile, Metro Editor Mark Bowder cobbled together a few sentences for a breaking news story, which Web Editor Amy Libby pushed out on our app and our website. News Editor Merridee Hanson, who was doing page design, saved a spot on a metro page for a last-minute deadline story.

There was some confusion when a Fire District 6 spokesman told a TV reporter that a man had died. We initially reported it, too. Later the police, in their first official statement, said the man was in critical condition. We quickly walked back our reporting.

On Saturday, we found a post on social media that indicated the man’s name was Jenoah Donald, but we waited to repeat the name until it was confirmed by the Vancouver Police Department, which had been named the outside agency providing information on the investigation. We would not want to get this fact wrong. We don’t want to lose sight of the fact this is a stressful time; while we are mindful of the public’s right to know, we also don’t want to inflict unnecessary pain on grieving people.

We also found out, and reported, that Donald is a Black man. Although we don’t routinely report race and ethnicity of people in the news, we decided to report it this time because shootings of Black people by police have been under close examination both locally and nationally. A segment of people are concerned about racial injustice. It’s a judgment call.

We will continue to make more news judgment calls as more facts about how a traffic stop led to a shooting come to light. Will it be worthwhile and fair to compare this shooting to the Oct. 29 shooting of Kevin Peterson Jr.? What facts about Donald’s life are relevant and should be reported? What facts are relevant about the officers who were on the traffic stop? What other significant factors contributed to what transpired on a dark Hazel Dell street on a winter weekday evening?

Language will be an issue, too. Is it fair to call Donald a “suspect” or a “victim”? Those words carry connotations that are not yet borne out by the facts. Likewise, news media are now cautioned to avoid the term “officer-involved shooting” on the grounds it is jargon and lacks moral clarity.

As this case unfolds, I am hopeful we will be able to present the relevant facts so the public gains a clear picture of what happened before, during and after the traffic stop. When we know the facts, we can question authority, and, if warranted, make changes in how our government operates. That’s democracy at work, but it makes me nervous.

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