Sunday’s shooting should lead to examination of spreading information

Don’t make their jobs harder than they already are.

This week, law enforcement in Newton had a long Sunday night trying to track down a suspect in a botched burglary turned shooting. The suspect fled on foot in northern Newton and was likely long gone as the search continued.

However, because he fled on foot, had a weapon, and shot someone, the Newton Police Department as well as other area law enforcement, rightly canvassed the area of the crime in search of the man.

And as it did so, it shared information about what was going on with the public on social media.

The department explained what happened and asked people in the area to shelter in their homes. Such communication was important to provide the community and warranted.

We, too, tried to amplify the information and get it out to those involved.

We did so away from the crime scene so as to not interfere with the ongoing search for an armed and dangerous suspect.

Would a picture have helped with are article? Yes. Would we probably have gotten a bit more information out to you all a little bit faster if we, too, were canvassing around the area? Possibly.

But would we have helped the situation at all? Probably not. Our managing editor, and he has a solid alibi, we promise, would have been out walking the streets, looking quite a bit like the suspect described. Our presence would have probably generated a few “suspicious character” calls.

There’s a point where we as a news organization have to weigh the need to have information immediately against the risk of interfering with police officers working an active crime scene.

As news consumers, you should also think about and weigh your need for instant information.

Sometimes we don’t help a situation by being on the scene, and so we stay away.

That philosophy isn’t shared always by the TV stations, who make the trip north every time something bad happens in Newton. And we saw that again Sunday night.

Police already had their hands full with the search, and then law enforcement in North Newton had to go through the Bethel campus to handle reports of a suspicious person as well as gun shots, both of which happened to be unfounded.

That whole event was going on over the police scanner, which we listen to, as do a good amount of Newton residents apparently.

The scanner chatter generated all sorts of reports on social media—that there was a shooter on the Bethel campus or a siege or police were breaking down doors or all sorts of other paranoia.

Our phones started blowing up with text messages about the social media reports.

So we did what any responsible news source should do: we followed up, got a hold of a credible source within the campus and tried to put out some information about the search that provided some context.

We’re sure we could have got a ton of shares and likes on social media had we put out a quick article titled “Police searching for reported shooter at Bethel.” Technically, it might have been accurate. But it served no community good without context and a bit more information.

The Newton Police Department has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to inform and keep the community up to date on developing situations. We saw it Sunday night. We’ve seen it with homicides and other criminal searches. We’d like to credit Police Lt. Bryan Hall for the department’s strong work in this regard.

For now, knowing all of this, we’re going to continue trust our local law enforcement to provide the necessary information when needed. There’s not been an instance in our dealings with them that they haven’t done that. That means staying out of their way when they’re in the middle of an active investigation. And, as news consumers, we hope all of you will use discretion when spreading information about a developing situation. Ask yourselves who it comes from and what good posting it or spreading it around does. Is the information from law enforcement or a quality news source? Or is it from someone who’s just listening to scanner chatter or the rumor mill? Is it information that informs others of what’s going on and keeps people safe? Or is it something that only spreads more confusion or paranoia?

If it’s not from a credible source and it’s not helping the conversation, you might want to hold off on what you post. Just because we can communicate instantly doesn’t mean we always should. And, in many cases, it’s far better to be second and right than first and wrong.