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Jacobs: Taking cautious approach to covering the news

The past week’s been a tough one in northern Nye and Esmeralda counties, one that’s been an ongoing lesson as far as how I do my job.

First, the region’s obviously been shaken by the deaths of three residents in a head-on crash between a pickup truck and an SUV south of Tonopah along U.S. Highway 95 in Esmeralda County on Dec. 28. Three others were injured in that wreck.

Less than 24 hours earlier, we learned of the death of a Round Mountain-area motorist in a fiery rollover wreck Dec. 22 on Nevada Highway 376.

That is four traffic deaths in our region in less than a week.

Condolences and prayers for all involved.

Though I try be first in reporting news here in the Tonopah Times-Bonanza &Goldfield News, in both cases, I learned about both fatal crashes first via social media — specifically Facebook.

From a journalistic point of view, social media can be a blessing and something to be very, very cautious with.

It’s great in getting words, photos and video out quickly to the public.

But in my case, I need to verify everything before I report it and attribute the information to someone in authority. Accuracy and credibility go hand-in-hand.

For a little general background: In my job, deaths from traffic crashes, fires, crimes, plane crashes and other events have to be verified with official sources such as law enforcement, the medical examiner, crash investigators, etc.

In rare cases and depending on the circumstances, it might be OK, but not ideal, to use confirmation from a family member with firsthand information.

Anonymous or unattributed sources for any stories are almost always off limits.

Even with the best of intentions and using official information, things can go wrong with news coverage.

In the Round Mountain traffic death, I first saw the victim’s name in a KTVN-TV Channel 2 story out of Reno. Within 20 minutes late on the night of Dec. 27, I was able to confirm all details with the investigating agency — the Nevada Highway Patrol, which sent me a written account of what investigators knew, including the victim’s name.

But later the next day, I received an email from the NHP. The subject line read: “Name Correction on Fatal Crash on SR376.”

My heart started skipping as I read the NHP email that said the victim’s name had been misspelled in the previous day’s account from the NHP. “I apologize for the misspelling of her name,” a trooper wrote. “Can you please put out the corrected information?”

It was laudable that the trooper took responsibility, but the Times-Bonanza had already gone to press.

The way I saw it, my credibility was damaged in my own eyes and probably readers’ and family and friends of the Round Mountain motorist.

I immediately contacted Times-Bonanza Editor Arnold Knightly to let him know. You will find a correction in today’s newspaper.

Something similar happened, a few days later, also involving the NHP.

On Dec. 29, the NHP had identified two of the U.S. Highway 95 crash victims as being from Goldfield. I had posted that information on the Times-Bonanza Facebook page. But in the course of my own reporting, I learned that two actually lived in Gold Point, Nevada. An alert Times-Bonanza Facebook member also notified me a short time later.

I immediately corrected the information on our Facebook page, disclosed the error in a separate Facebook comment and again immediately notified Knightly, my editor.

I am still determining how this error happened even though the information came from an authoritative source, the NHP.

Correcting record

Corrections are a serious business. Earlier in my career, I knew editors who kept track of reporter errors. The editors also insisted that reporters write explanations to their editors when an error occurred. I also worked at a Nevada paper where reporters were not allowed to repeat the error in writing the correction. That was very cumbersome, and eventually that rule was relaxed.

When I worked in Ohio, I was told by a co-worker that it was a fireable offense for getting the lottery numbers wrong or misspelling Procter &Gamble, the consumer products giant based in Cincinnati.

All of that brings me back to the head-on crash near Tonopah on Dec. 28.

Word of the crash and the name of one victim, Mike McKinnis, surfaced on Facebook unattributed to anyone about a full day before any names officially had been released by the NHP.

Someone in town also gave me a name shortly after the crash. I took that as a tip to check out and confirm as opposed to a fact to report without attribution from an official source of information.

In working to get verified information out to the public as quickly as possible, I was able the night of the crash to confirm details from the NHP, which verified an online news report from KRNV-TV News 4 in Reno.

I still did not have any names, though.

Then later that evening, I saw Nye County Sheriff Sharon Wehrly in Tonopah just hours after the crash. She confirmed McKinnis’ death to me — in response to my question. That was after his next of kin had been informed of his passing, the sheriff noted.

Questions were raised about all of this, including at what point we should have named McKinnis, why only he was named initially and used crash-scene photos.

Even though the sheriff’s office is not investigating the crash, Wehrly was in a position to know so I went with that information. That, I hope, also helped in providing some attributed information to the public as soon as possible from an authoritative source.

In the coming weeks, I envision pursuing more coverage relating to the crash as more is learned about the victims and if their families are interested in telling us more about their loved ones.

I would encourage readers with any concerns about coverage in the Times-Bonanza or on our social media platforms to contact me or Knightly, the newspaper’s editor.

In the meantime, I hope this column helped in explaining how seriously we take news reporting here at the Times-Bonanza. All of this also might encourage people to think twice before writing unverified or unattributed information on social media accounts.

As you can see, errors can occur even with official information sources and with the best of intentions.

Contact reporter David Jacobs at djacobs@tonopahtimes.com

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