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Kentucky Fried Zombies vs. News Consumers

Because I work in the media, I hear all the time about how bad a job the media does at reporting the news. In my last post, I updated a story about a Kentucky high school student arrested after writing a story he claimed was about zombies attacking a high school. The update consisted of new information from a court hearing in which a police detective testified about the contents of the story.

I addressed the fact that when the story was originally published, many people automatically sided with the student, and accused the student’s grandparents who turned him in and the local authorities of overreacting.

One of the comments I received was this:

Well this definitely sheds new light on the story. However I don’t necessarily agree that we overreacted to the original story. The blame lies with the media who did such a shoddy job of reporting on what actually happened. I read about a story in which a child wrote about zombies attacking his school and was subsequently arrested for it. That sounded plain idiotic to me and I said so. In light of this most recent information hardly any of the first story was even correct. The editor who let that first story out should be fired.

The blame lies with the media? Surprise, surprise. A Shoddy job? I hear this all the time. The “media” never gets it right! What facts from the first story were proven “incorrect” by the second? The second story merely added more details. Fire the editor? Wouldn’t that be as extreme an action as everyone thought the authorities were taking?

I’m going to do something I rarely do now: I am going to post an entire article from an outside source, rather than simply linking to it. I believe that it is important that you see the full story at once. So, with no intended challenge to copyright, here is the original story:

A George Rogers Clark High School junior arrested Tuesday for making terrorist threats told LEX 18 News Thursday that the “writings” that got him arrested are being taken out of context.

Winchester police say William Poole, 18, was taken into custody Tuesday morning. Investigators say they discovered materials at Poole’s home that outline possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police.

Poole told LEX 18 that the whole incident is a big misunderstanding. He claims that what his grandparents found in his journal and turned into police was a short story he wrote for English class.

“My story is based on fiction,” said Poole, who faces a second-degree felony terrorist threatening charge. “It’s a fake story. I made it up. I’ve been working on one of my short stories, (and) the short story they found was about zombies. Yes, it did say a high school. It was about a high school over ran by zombies.”

Even so, police say the nature of the story makes it a felony. “Anytime you make any threat or possess matter involving a school or function it’s a felony in the state of Kentucky,” said Winchester Police detective Steven Caudill.

Poole disputes that he was threatening anyone.

“It didn’t mention nobody who lives in Clark County, didn’t mention (George Rogers Clark High School), didn’t mention no principal or cops, nothing,” said Poole. “Half the people at high school know me. They know I’m not that stupid, that crazy.”

On Thursday, a judge raised Poole’s bond from one to five thousand dollars after prosecutors requested it, citing the seriousness of the charge.

Poole is being held at the Clark County Detention Center.

This story Copyright ©2005 WorldNow and WLEX-TV.

Let’s consider this story: there are two primary sides being presented. The first side is that of a student who says he was writing a story about “zombies” and meant no harm. The second side is that of authorities who said that the story consists of “possible acts of violence aimed at students, teachers, and police.”

We hear from the student, who apparently granted the media an interview to say that he was being misunderstood. He gives few details of his story, but rather talks about what it isn’t about. He says he is innocent.

We hear from the authorities; specifically the same police detective who testified in court about the specifics of the case, who explains that making a threat is a felony in Kentucky. We also hear from the school principal who addresses the student’s claim that he was doing an assignment for English class.

Two sides of the story. Claims are addressed by the opposite sides. It’s balanced because we do hear from both sides and there is an interaction of the facts presented since both sides answer pretty much the same questions.

We do not have the specifics of the story, but this is understandable because police are never going to release specifics to the media before a court hearing. We are lucky they had this much to say prior to the hearing itself. The student who agreed to an interview shouldn’t be expected to give details that might make him look guilty when he is proclaiming his innocence. We do not have an interview from the grandparents who turned the student in; they apparently did not want to be interviewed, but it is possible no one asked them. The real story is that a student who says he did nothing wrong is facing felony charges.

We get both sides of that story.

What is funny to me isn’t the “shoddy” nature of the reporting, but rather the “shoddy” nature of the news consumers who read the story. They expect the news to be fair and balanced, yet they read this story, and almost invariably take sides with the student. They criticize the authorities for taking action against a student the authorities assume must be wrong; yet they are assuming that the student must be right. (As I have said, our legal system requires that he be assumed innocent until proven otherwise; the problem is that some readers seem to think that the matter shouldn’t even be investigated.)

Then comes the new information. Reread the new story, which even addresses the internet furor here. Consider that there are still basically two sides of the story: a student who claims he was misunderstood and is being unfairly prosecuted, and authorities who believe otherwise.

There are muddied waters in this new story, because it addresses the fact that the blogosphere jumped into the mix to champion the student’s cause. But this isn’t a “side” in the story; it’s merely support for one of the two primary sides.

The story doesn’t quote specifically Poole; it does summarize his claims of innocence and uses his internet sympathizers to get his “side” onto the table. The new information in this story is the specifics of courtroom testimony, which paint a very different picture of the situation than the one Poole himself gave us.

Is this shoddy reporting? No, it’s continuing coverage of a story that has produced new information. Should readers be angry about this new information? Only if they jumped to the same kind of conclusion they accused authorities of jumping to: that’s the only reason they’d feel like they’d been “had.” If they were open-minded, these new details shouldn’t make them angry.

Another commenter said: “Bottom line …. Never believe anything you read….or at least, not until you’ve heard the opposing viewpoint.” That’s very true. In this case, we had the opposing viewpoint, yet most people still took only the student’s word for it. Neither side, in that first story, gave a great deal of information about the story itself. Yet why did so many automatically assume that the authorities were overreacting?

Kentucky was indeed home of the Paducah shootings as another commenter pointed out. Perhaps it is understandable that they would take anything that could be considered a threat more seriously than other authorities might.

Shoddy reporting? No. As Shakespeare said, “The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves….” As with all other things, we see, hear and read exactly what we want to.

Patrick is a Christian with more than 30 years experience in professional writing, producing and marketing. His professional background also includes social media, reporting for broadcast television and the web, directing, videography and photography. He enjoys getting to know people over coffee and spending time with his dog.