Earlier today, a man took off in a small airplane in Georgetown, Texas and flew it right into an office building in Austin. Right now, two people are confirmed dead. Remarkably, only several people were injured. You can imagine the chaos on the scene and around the world on the news channels and internet. A plane flies into a building? Is it terrorism? Are there more coming? What’s happening?
There’s the key question any journalist worth their weight in salt should always ask. “What’s happening?” Tom Brokaw once said that question was the one the late Tim Russert always used when greeting others. I subscribe to the theory of asking and the passion behind it.
Some time ago, organizations both public and private decided the best way to tell their story was to hire someone or a bunch of someones whose specialty was communication. Like any profession, there are good ones and there are bad ones.
Pardon the pessimism in this edition because I’m talking about the ones who’ve been bad at their jobs. They may be good ones, but that’s for someone else to debate.
My list of worst local agencies that have poor track records of public information flow include the Grayson County Sheriff’s Office, Denison Police Dept. (and city hall), and Carter County Sheriff’s Office. Another that’s rising to the top of the list is the Texas Department of Public Safety.
A few days ago, a young lady was walking along a country road before dawn when she was killed by a passing vehicle. She was on her way to work. The terrible ordeal was a terrible accident, the authorities determined. But it took more than 10 hours before anybody with knowledge or authorization to speak to the reporter inquiring. 10 hours. This was no murder investigation. I don’t believe there was any fear of tipping off any suspects of any crime. Why take so long? I can only assume their reasons were justified. I understand it’s courtesy to notify family members of a loved one’s death before releasing their personal information to the public. That’s not my beef here. Someone could’ve told what happened and kept their identity confidential long before the dozens of phone calls were made, including one to the top public information officer in Austin. More on them later.
Several weeks ago, a deputy sheriff was involved in a shooting with a man in the north part of the county. The scene was taped off with yellow tape. Our information about what was going on came from neighbors who were terrified at the time, and were more frustrated than we were because nobody would tell them what was going on either. One of our photojournalists went to the scene and was stopped at the imaginary perimeter, which is usual these days. We had video for the news and our website. We had little information from the location, and no information from anybody in the know.
It was more than a day later before a typed press release was emailed to media outlets. It left more questions than answers, which weren’t really ever answered. Since nobody was reported to be hurt, it didn’t become a big story and we all moved on. But still. It was the latest in a long list of examples of derelict. I write all this with mixed feelings, but the man in charge of public information for the Sheriff’s Office is a great individual. He’s as helpful as he can be when needed and he does indeed give information most of the time. During big stories like this though, it seems to be standard operating procedure to shut off the flow of info. By the way, we never did learn the deputy’s identity or what happened to him. I hope he’s fine and his actions were justified.
Today was a tragic day in Austin. Several agencies from the local, federal, and state levels are all working to get a clear picture of what happened. While the chaos was in full throttle at the crash site, national news organizations were starting to pick up the story from the local outlets. The website twitter was buzzing with the latest updates. Even the NTSB jumped in with a few small notes. Today also happened to be the appointed time the state’s public safety commission got together. The director and other staffers from the Department of Public Safety were at that meeting. Take a look at snippets from my twitter feed below to see why I’m a little frustrated.