Blog: The Educated Reporter

After District Error, Reporters Publish Hidden Details on Parkland Shooter’s History
Broward County School Board wants Sun Sentinel reporters held in contempt for publishing redacted details

For reporters, it’s second nature to hold up a redacted paper document to the light to see what might still be visible. Two reporters at the South Florida Sun Sentinel are facing a possible contempt of court charge for using a digital version of this technique on a report — commissioned by Broward County Public Schools — about the shooter at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School.

The contempt allegation and the circumstances that led to it offer important insights into the reporting process, and the ethical responsibility journalists shoulder when handling sensitive information.

According to the pleading filed by the Broward County School Board, the newspaper “opted to report, publicly, information that this court had ordered to be redacted despite agreeing, on the record, that this information was protected by both Florida and federal law,” the Sun Sentinel reported. (For more on privacy laws that protect student records, including the 1974 Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, go here.) 

From the Associated Press:

“The full report, done by a consultant for the school board, revealed failings including that [Nikolas] Cruz — who had long been given special needs services in the school system — was not accurately told of his options when he faced removal from Stoneman Douglas and that officials didn’t properly respond when he asked to return to a more therapeutic alternative school. The upshot was he got no services in the 14 months leading up to the shooting. The redacted version included these violations in only a general way and concluded that the school board in most instances followed state and federal law for special needs students in Cruz’s case.”

The school district posted the report on its website August 3 — months after the Sun Sentinel and other media outlets went to court to push for its release, and only after a judge ordered the school board to share a redacted version.

Acting on a tip from a reader, Sun Sentinel reporters Paula McMahon and Brittany Wallman determined that a district employee had used an editing tool to black out sections that the school board wanted redacted — about 64 percent of the total report. Those changes were accidentally undone when the text was copied and pasted into a new document.

The unredacted report contained fresh details about the perpetrator’s track record in the school system, and mistakes that had been made in handling his requests for additional services and support.

The judge handling the criminal case against the shooter, a former student at Stoneman Douglas, will hear a motion on the contempt issue Wednesday (Aug. 15), Wallman told me.

While the reporters can’t discuss the contempt allegation, “We’re comfortable saying we don’t think we did anything wrong, that we acted professionally, and we were guided by the First Amendment,” Wallman said. “You have to weigh the value of the information; in this case, it was incredibly valuable.”

Legal Precedent

There’s plenty of legal precedent supporting reporters’ rights to use material that’s inadvertently made public, said Frank LoMonte, a journalism professor and the director of the Brechner Center for Freedom of Information at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

“If an agency is told by a judge to give you the documents but to take out page 5, and they inadvertently include page 5, you are completely and unequivocally within your rights to print page 5,” LoMonte said.

That the Sun Sentinel reporters had to take some extra steps to undo the redactions — specifically, the cutting and pasting into a new document — could arguably be considered murkier ethical territory than a page of text being inadvertently left visible, LoMonte said.

“There’s probably a point where actively overriding security controls might put you in some trouble,” he said. “But I don’t think we’re there yet in this scenario. This is more a case of a school district employee not doing a good enough job rather than ethically questionable behavior by the reporters.”

In a piece published last Friday, the newspaper pushed back on the school board’s allegation:

“The school board’s attempts to threaten the Sun Sentinel and keep it from reporting on its missteps with the Parkland shooter will not work,” said Sun Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson. “We are committed to digging into all aspects of this tragedy and the issues it raises for our community. We believe that a well informed public will find solutions. That is what drives our newsroom.”

Since the Feb. 14 school shooting in Parkland, which left 17 people dead and dozens more injured, it’s been “all hands on deck” for the Sun Sentinel’s newsroom in covering the fallout, including piecing together actions by public agencies. Wallman, the paper’s city hall reporter, and McMahon, who covers federal courts and legal issues, have both written multiple stories about the case.

After the school district posted the redacted report at 5 p.m. on Friday, Aug. 3, Wallman and McMahon published a short writeup online, followed by a more in-depth story a few hours later. At about 7:30 p.m. McMahon received a Facebook message from a reader: The redacted report could be read in full simply by cutting and pasting the entire text into a new document.

While that moment of discovery itself was “a frenzied blur,” recalled Wallman, their next steps were nothing if not methodical. After consulting with their editors and the newspaper’s attorneys, the decision was made to update the story using the now-unredacted information. Their expanded story was posted online soon after 10 p.m. and in the print edition the next morning.

‘No Trickery’

Both Wallman and McMahon have decades of experience as journalists, beginning their respective careers in the early 1990s. They can recall past instances where redacted text was unexpectedly viewable — but those were paper versions of reports that had been poorly covered with black or white ink.

“There was no trickery involved” in this case, McMahon said. “Some people have tried to suggest we had a anti-redaction software program — it was nothing like that. We hit ‘select all,’ ‘copy’ and ‘paste.’ That’s it.”

Interestingly, the technical glitch revealed by the Sun Sentinel “isn’t new information,” Wallman said. The reporters have since heard from attorneys who say they’ve been warned about this risky redaction technique and that it’s been widely discussed at legal conferences as a possible problem.

There’s clear news value in the unredacted Broward schools report, said JPat Brown, the executive editor of MuckRock, a nonprofit collaborative news site that facilitates gathering and sharing public records to support investigative journalism. But it’s still important for the public to know this was, indeed, a judgement call, he added.

There’s no shortage of examples of reporters making the decision not to use private information that was improperly shared by a public agency. In 2015, for example, a government office for the District of Columbia gave BuzzFeed digital records that reporters determined could be “unlocked” to reveal personal data about students’ disciplinary records. The media outlet agreed not to use the information.

The circumstances of the Broward case appear to be a digital version of the familiar “analog” error when a public agency fails to adequately cover up the contents of paper records with a manual tool like a black marker, Brown said. The fault lies with the district and not the reporters, he argued.

“It’s usually a bad sign when people are asking judges to hold newspapers in contempt for doing their jobs,” Brown said.

Public agencies — particularly local police departments — have a long history of mishandling redactions, Brown said. And while there are certainly cases where it’s appropriate to hold back personal information, “a lot of times it’s redacted not because of a real pressing reason but because it makes people look bad,” Brown said. “It’s not sensitive information, it’s just embarrassing.”

For Wallman and McMahon, the episode holds another lesson: the value of local reporting and building trust with readers — including the tipster who chose to share the redaction error with them. The Sun Sentinel is “very proud to be the paper of record” on what’s become a national conversation about school safety issues, McMahon said.

“There is no story that is more important to our readers right now,” McMahon said. “Our community has really made it very clear to us they want to know every detail of what went wrong in this case.”

This post has been updated. 



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