In today's climate, when a threat of school violence prompts a two-week police investigation, the public expects to hear about it. So, when parents in my hometown Benicia, Calif., didn't hear a peep til an anonymous citizen journalist posted an article online three weeks after the threat surfaced, some people in the community were upset.
Perhaps the police news release and media coverage would have occurred anyhow. But some Benicians have their doubts. "If this hadn't been posted, would we ever have heard?" a parent asked at a school board meeting Thursday, according to the Benicia Herald.
Not only did the story first surface in an anonymous posting on BeniciaNews.com, but confirmation by another person was posted on the site before the story surfaced in the mainstream media. It's a good example of how citizen reporters provide checks and balances on one another. Not a perfect system -- as the person posting verifying information also was anonymous -- but in this case it worked. (Full disclosure: I was the founding editor of GetLocalNews.com, the company that launched BeniciaNews.com as its pilot site in 2000.)
Here's the sequence of events:
The threatening note was discovered on a Benicia High School computer Oct. 4, and police investigated over the next two weeks, according to a story Thursday in the Vallejo Times Herald.
The first publicity came Friday, Oct. 27, when someone identified only as "Jade" posted a story on BeniciaNews.com:
That posting triggered discussion on the web site. Readers first were incredulous, doubting the veracity of the anonymous posting. Then on Monday, Oct. 30, someone identified as a parent posted a comment titled "I asked police" that said, "Parents, pay attention. I have spoken to the police department and they indicated there was such a list and that the police department has completed its investigation and the issue is now with the administration of the school district. ..."
The Benicia Herald first reported the threat on Tuesday, Oct. 31, and followed up with coverage on Thursday, Nov. 2, the same day the Vallejo Times Herald first reported the story.
The citizen journalism-mainstream media synergy worked in this case: Citizens aired what they thought was an important uncovered story. Mainstream media verified, providing the public with a more-credible report (in that the newspapers were not anonymous). I have a hunch the mainstream media probably would have reported this story eventually, but it's likely that the web site postings gave the newspapers a greater sense of urgency.
One final note: I've noted here before instances in which the mainstream media have avoided mentioning the names of community web sites like BeniciaNews.com. That occurred again on this story. In its coverage, the Vallejo Times Herald said:
The note reached a higher audience last Friday after an online community news site posted an unsigned message alleging that the "hit list" contained specific targets and dates, and that "none of the people on the list have been informed that their lives have been threatened."
Further, the online posting said that "one student, who claims to know who made the threats, is refusing to cooperate with the police. She is supported by her parents, one of whom is a school board member."
The Benicia Herald story refers to "Jade," who, the paper said, had contacted its offices and had "written various online posts about the topic."
Not naming an online publication in this context is akin to not naming a source. It seems odd to me that papers still do this.