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The Person Spoke on Condition of Anonymity: NOT Authorized to Speak…reporting The News

News Reporting 101: Get the facts and tell the truth.

How many times do you see or hear this in the news reporting we get our information from about what is going on around the world and in our own neighborhoods every day?

This is all too often how we are getting our news lately it seems; anonymous and unauthorized and from and by whom is anyone’s guess…and we lap it up and believe every word as though it was the gospel truth.  It is gossip, half truths.  It is hearsay. It is assumption. It is speculation.  It is prejudicial.  It is slanted and opinionated; and it is not very often the truth or at least not the whole truth because no one waited long enough to get all the facts before the news was reported and then 90 % of the time the modern day reporter slips in “just a wee bit” of their own slanted opinion.  And this is the “Breaking News,” filled with sensationalism; fiction based on half-truths of a real situation.

“Hey, hey you,” some fellow runs up to a reporter, “I saw it all; saw everything that went down.  You ain’t gonna believe this!”  And the reporter probably shouldn’t but they will and they will write it up as truth, “the real news.”

“May I quote you?”

“Sure,” But this is really got to be totally off the record.  “I’m just telling you how I saw it. You don’t know my name.  I’m just a window-washer they hired and I’m not really authorized to speak officially but I’ll be glad to tell you what I seen and overheard. Man! I can hardly believe it myself.  Who’d think somethin’ like this would happen here!”

“Something like what?”

“Someone blowing up a beautiful landmark building with people inside.”

“That’s what happened?  You saw it?”

“Saw the whole thing.”

“Sure thing, we’ll keep it anonymous.” and the reporter is taking it all in and taking notes or maybe even recording the conversation, “whatever you say is totally anonymous because you are not authorized to speak officially for this, company, school, person, investigating authority, or government department (or whatever); but here is ten bucks for your time and your story; tell me what you know.” 

The reporter interviews this Mr. Anonymous, getting the “Big scoop,” and is on the phone reporting a suspected arsonist or maybe a terrorist attack before the police and fire department have even begun to secure the scene, be sure people are safe or done a quarter ounce of investigating or the first ambulance has arrived.  Panic ensues, phones start ringing and imagination is busting its seams.

There is a fire, an explosion, maybe somebody dies, or maybe several somebodys.  There was a pop, pop, sounded like gun shots and then there were flames, someone running from the building, can’t be sure but it looked like a rifle they were carrying, could have been an automatic and another case of some sort he was carrying as he ran away. Maybe it was an arsonist, or maybe a terrorist from somewhere.  He is seen by Mr. Anonymous running down a side street toward a parking lot.  

“What happened?  Tell me everything you saw.”

“I was on the third floor scaffolding washing windows when I heard pop, pop, bang and a loud explosion like a bomb exploding and all the smoke alarms began going off and I could hear people screaming fire.

Just as I swung around to go down the ladder I saw a man running from the back of the building about the same time everything exploded.  He was running like the devil was on his tail and carrying something, looked like a rifle and a case of some sort from here.”

“A rifle?  You saw someone running from the building just as it was going up in flames and that person was carrying a rifle?”  The reporter is wide-eyed and taking notes.  This story is going to be big, really big.

“Oh yeh, dark skinned, sort of tall, medium build, young I think, didn’t really see his face ‘cause he was running away, didn’t look like anyone from around here that I could recognize.  I couldn’t really tell for certain.  He was running away from me and he had what looked like a rifle in his hand.  Shootings, arson, all that stuff is just getting worse and worse.  It’s scary.  No one is safe anymore, nowhere.” 

(And now the seed has been planted.) 

“Just before the fire started, I heard this argument, some yelling from the office next door from where I was washing windows, loud voices, sounded like a couple of men having a big argument but I couldn’t see who it was, they sounded real mad though. just before the sound of gun shots, that pop, pop sound, might have been three or four shots, maybe more.  Heard a door slam real hard and then someone running, sounded like someone running and the stairs between the two offices, you know, where I was washing the windows and the office where the men were fighting. 

Then suddenly people began screaming and running out of the building and suddenly there was a lot of smoke and fire pouring out the back and maybe some folks are still trapped inside, I heard someone shouting folks was trapped as I was running away.   I barely made it to the ground before I could see smoke pouring from the windows I’d just washed.  It was a close call.  I dialed 911 but someone else had already called, and I could hear the sirens.

I’m scared for them folks in the back. There are apartments in the back of the building too, people live there.  Not sure if they got out or not.  This old relic of a building is going up like tinder.  Probably a total loss.  Terrible shame.  We just voted money for renovations to restore this old landmark, our tax dollars going up in flames.”

“You said you saw someone running away from the building just before the explosion?” 

“Yeh, yeh I did. I was scrambling to get out of there but I saw something go flying just before that fellow running from the building ran down the street. He looked back and I saw him throw something; it looked to be about the size of a handgun but I can’t be sure; and then there was fire everywhere, a big boom like a bomb exploding.  I got down off the scaffolding fast as I could scramble and ran for my life.  I ain’t never been so scared.”

While the reporter is interviewing Mr. Anonymous he is also overhearing passers by shouting about something exploding, and someone else saying there was a noise that sounded like gun shots, a high caliber rifle, and others shouting that people were still trapped in the building, has anyone seen so and so.

The sidewalk on the opposite side of the street is rapidly filling up and flowing into the street with “the watchers, the curious and anyone else who may have been in the vicinity, the gawkers, all making their own speculations and commenting here and there.  The air is impregnated with the stench of fear and anguish that is even more overpowering than the acrid stench of a burning building as rumors fly in the face of disaster and all while people are trying to be accounted for, the fire brought under control and an investigation gotten underway.  There are few actual facts known at this time, only spectators feeding on rumors and speculation.   People are milling around and talking among themselves or just simply gawking.

Someone crowding in just a few feet away from the reporter was saying to someone else, “Bet this is gonna be a case of arson and insurance fraud.”  The property owner’s name was mentioned and something about his ex-wife trying to squeeze his last penny out of him.  Too bad he’s trying to take this way out.  Beautiful relic of a building.  It’s over 200 years old.  Lot of history going up in smoke.”

“No, you’re wrong on that one.  (The property owner’s name is mentioned again.)  He ain’t got the guts for arson.  Of course that’s not to say he wouldn’t hire someone to do it for him.  The old goat has more money than God.  Anyhow, he’s in Florida right now.  Won’t be back until the middle of next week.  Wonder if anyone has called him yet?  More likely the ex-wife burned it down and will sue for the insurance money and probably get it.  She is insanely jealous over (property owner’s name is mentioned again) his new honey.  She’s only about half his age and is the chairperson of the Cultural Center.  He’s dished a bundle out for her cause.”

“Or for the fringe benefits money can buy,” the other person snorts.  “Somebody is going to do jail time for this.”

The reporter makes note of all he is overhearing and writes a reminder to himself to call the property owner at his Florida address.  This could be hot stuff.

At least three other people have confirmed the sound of an explosion and a pop, pop sound as the reporter tries to get information from others in the vicinity but no one else has confirmed seeing anyone with a weapon running from the building or confirmed actual shots being fired; but it might have happened and the reporter trusts every word Mr. Anonymous is saying, after all, he saw the whole thing and first responders are too busy at the moment to answer questions.  No one else seems to know anything other than there was an explosion of some sort and that there may still be people in the building.       

The reporter goes on the air with “Breaking News” from the scene and reports Mr. Anonymous story as fact and thanks Mr. Anonymous for his time.  Who cares if he hasn’t got it quite right so long as you are first with the news and your byline makes headlines.  You can fix it all later and blame Mr. Anonymous for not getting his facts straight.  You’re just reporting the news and what facts you can garner in all the confusion. 

Well, maybe the reporter doesn’t give Mr. Anonymous ten bucks but he sure does hand him ten seconds of fame for telling all he “knows,” however anonymous and unauthorized that may be; and he will have quite a tale to tell his grandchildren about the day he barely escaped with his life from a horrible fire and how his story made “Breaking News…”And we simply assume Mr. Anonymous must be a first responder or official of some sort, someone in the know, just not an authorized spokesperson and now there is fear of a possible shooter or an arsonist at large.

Is this how you want the news reported?  Is it how news should be reported?

News reporting 101:  First rule; Get the facts and just the facts and tell the truth.

The Facts:

There is a rapidly spreading large fire in downtown Whereverville.

First responders are on the scene.

The building is a local landmark and houses the local Chamber of Commerce; Whereverville Development Agency; a business called We Care that provides aide to disabled people who are shut-in and unable to do for themselves and operates their business in conjunction with the local Visiting Nurses Association and Hospice; there are offices of a non-profit cultural center including an Internet Café named All People that is located on the ground floor and the office of a local CPA is also located in this building.  There are five small apartments on the back side of the building facing a side street where people live.  Most of the people who live there are young and are students who attend the Community college about a block or so away.  Employees and people living there are still being accounted for.

Buildings on either side of the burning building are being evacuated.  One of them houses a day care center and children are being taken to the library down the street where parents can come to pick them up.

There are no known injuries at this time but residents and personnel are still trying to be accounted for .

This is all the news on the fire that is actual fact and all the reporter should be reporting in that first report.  You can update the report later when more facts are presented by the officials and authorized persons on the scene.

This is all that is factually known when “Breaking News” comes across your local TV screen at home but the report is embellished with rumor and innuendo from the scene and the dramatic story of Mr. Anonymous who claims to have seen it all:  but updates will be given as soon as anything comes in, some of which will be reported from one or more other “unauthorized to speak” persons, each with their own conflicting truths.   

The general public over-reacts, rumors start spreading, accusations are made and fear, anger and grief rise up from the ashes.  Mr. Anonymous, the person who spoke to the reporter on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak, strikes again; but it must be the truth because we heard it on the local news, live from the scene.

The Bottom Line: What really happened once the rumors were quelled and the investigation was complete…The fire in Whereverville:

A landmark building was destroyed by fire and two other buildings suffered smoke and water damage.

The fire was started from a propane gas leak in the ground floor back apartment where an explosion occurred.  No one was home in that apartment at the time. It was not arson and no terrorist were involved.

The sound of shots fired were the sounds of doors slamming as people ran to escape and windows being blown out of the building from the initial explosion.  No one was shot and the argument Mr. Anonymous overheard was a personal one between a father and son in the father’s office that had no connection to the fire at all.  He and his son both made it out safely and their argument was amicably resolved.  When asked about the fire they had no comment other than it was a tragic loss for the community and they were glad to be alive.

The person Mr. Anonymous saw running from the building was a student from a second floor apartment who was escaping the burning building.  What he was carrying was his laptop in its case with some files; and the rifle Mr. Anonymous described was a telescope the student had recently purchased.  He is a stargazer, a hobby he enjoys.  He didn’t throw anything.  He had turned to look back and motion to another person running from the building to follow him.  He dropped his camera and cell phone when he motioned to the other person, a fellow student from a neighboring apartment.  They both ran to his car that was parked in the lot down the street and drove to the college campus where they received assistance.  Neither student reported seeing anyone with a rifle or any other weapon in the area while they were escaping the fire and could not confirm anything about how the fire started or any possible injuries.  They were just glad to be alive.

Everyone, tenants and business personnel, in the building had escaped without serious injury.  Three persons were taken to the hospital for smoke inhalation but released later that same day.  One person, another student, suffered minor burns and smoke inhalation while trying to rescue her cat.  The cat jumped out a window onto the balcony and sprang into a nearby tree, climbed down from the tree and ran.  Firemen rescued the student from the balcony of her third floor apartment along with 3 other people trapped on the third and fourth floors, all rescued safely.  The cat owner was the only on to suffer injury and only suffered minor injuries.  She was taken to the hospital and released later the same day. 

If anyone finds a gray longhaired cat with a white bib and paws wearing a pink collar with a silver bell on it; she answers to the name of Sassy please call the owner or the Humane Society.  The student would like her cat back.

The Red Cross and local agencies are assisting those displaced by the fire.

Demolition crews will be removing the remains of the building over the next few days.  The property owner stated he hopes to rebuild over the next few months to a year.  His ex-wife had no comment. 

Businesses that once were housed in this landmark building are still deciding what direction they will be taking though most tentatively plan to re-establish their businesses at a new location as soon as possible.  We Care will be operating for the present time, out of the Visiting Nurses’ Common Avenue office building until other arrangements and space is made available.  The Chamber of Commerce will be temporarily located in the vacant apartment above the Downtown Grill and Sandwich Shop until a more permanent location can be found.

There was no bomb, no shooter, no gun shots, no arsonist any kind and no one was seriously injured.  No one died, not even the cat.  The cat was returned to its rightful owner three days later and is back to enjoying its pampered lifestyle in a new apartment near campus.

The student’s camera and cell phone were found by the police during their investigation and returned to the student.  He was just running from the fire and has never owned a gun. 

When you dramatize, sensationalize the news without getting all the facts and only get assumed facts from unreliable, unauthorized sources, it causes more trauma and damage than a five alarm fire and spreads worse than wildfire in dry timber.  That is not good journalism or the correct way to report the news.  If you want to do drama write a flash fiction piece or write a novel but don’t make it headline news. 

Get the facts, just the facts.  There is no need to twist it or embellish it with drama.  The facts are all your viewing public really wants to know anyhow.  Report just the news as it is really happening and leave Mr. Anonymous to hang out with the gossip crowd.  They can do enough damage without your help.  Do a little damage control and tell it like it really is; the truth, just the facts, Jack; and get your story from reliable sources.     

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