Threats at schools: When to report

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CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa (KCRG-TV9) - In the wake of the shooting at Douglas High School in Florida that killed 17 students, schools nationwide have seen a spike in threats. Some are due to a copycat effect and others from heightened awareness of potential threats to student safety.

This week, one eastern Iowa school district reported a threatening comment to police who launched an investigation. Police determined "there was not a viable threat towards students or staff".

You will not see this as a story on KCRG-TV9, along with several other threats we will undoubtedly learn of during the rest of the school year.
Here's why.

Indiana State Police cited a "contagion effect" for a spike in threats to schools there. Normally, contagion refers to how diseases spread. In this case, it refers to a copycat effect. A student sees the fame and attention given to school shooters and others who make threats and see to get the same attention, despite the fact it is negative attention.

"It's the copycat thing," said Indiana State Police spokesman John Perrine, told the Indy Star. "When something is in the news, when something is fresh in peoples' minds, it increases the threats...Even if someone thinks it's a joke, we don’t think it’s funny."

That creates a difficult balancing act for news outlets - report a possible threat to public safety and it may cause more threats to public safety,

Most newsrooms, including KCRG-TV9, has set standards for when to report or not report a threat. Ours is simple, yet complex: is there a public impact? It seems simple - if the threat rises to a level where there is an impact on the general public, we report it for the overriding public good it can do. For example, when police evacuated Anamosa High School this week, we covered it because police had taken a public action, signaling the threat was one taken more seriously than most.

Newsroom policies, including our own, also detail how to cover a threat. Ours includes focusing on the policies surrounding the response rather than focusing on the impact of the threat. That includes not naming any students involved except to report on criminal charges or punishments, which can act as a deterrent to potential copycats.

These policies are far from perfect and we often refine them, especially as social media presents even more challenges. Let us know what you think of our policy and coverage - good or bad - by emailing questions@kcrg.com.

This is part of our ongoing effort with the Trusting News Project.