Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reporting the suspension and arrest of a teacher on felony drug charges

Breaking news isn’t artwork.
If you’re lucky, it looks like a craft, at best.
Sometimes it’s just messy.
Time is of the essence on breaking news because your community is hungry for information. At the same time, the sources of information can be reluctant or unable to tell you what the community wants to know.
That’s pretty much sums up the reporting this week of the news of the arrest of Kingston High School teacher Matthew DiDonna.
Our newsroom learned relatively late in the work cycle on Sunday that the Kingston school district had posted a notice about a high school teacher having been arrested by the state police. The posting stated the district “has been informed by law enforcement personnel that a Kingston High School teacher has been arrested on multiple drug charges. This individual will be placed on leave.”
The district did not identify the teacher and the website quoted Superintendent Paul Padalino as saying “due to legal issues surrounding employee confidentiality, I am unable to comment on any specific cases.”
The newsroom also had in its possession an arrest item from state police and published it in the Law & Disorder column as follows:


Drugs: Matthew T. DiDonna, 42, of 12 Wayside Drive, Hurley was arrested Sunday at 3:55 a.m. by state police at Ulster and charged with two felonies: possession and sale of a controlled substance as well as violation possession of marijuana. Police said the arrest followed an investigation determining that DiDonna sold drugs at his residence the prior evening. Executing a search warrant, police said they found DiDonna to be in possession of a quantity of psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana. He was arraigned in Hurley Town Court and later released from Ulster County Jail on $20,000 bail.

We knew a Matthew DiDonna was listed on the KHS staff directory.
Circumstantially, it seemed to be a match.
But circumstantial is not good enough. We needed to know that DiDonna was the teacher referenced by the school district posting. It is hardly unheard of, after all, for the same people in a community to have the same name, especially men, who not infrequently are named after their fathers. 
So we posted separate stories -- the one about an unidentified KHS teacher being suspended for drug charges, the other the police blotter item (see above).
Some readers thought they were being helpful by trying to post with our stories the observation that a Matthew DiDonna was listed on the KHS directory as a teacher. Some appeared to have more than a circumstantial knowledge that the two were one in the same.
Still, we rejected those postings as attempting to make an identification we had not confirmed. Had it been a case of mistaken identity, such a posting could have been libelous.
To say readers were hammering us with online postings early the next morning would be putting it mildly.
More than one commenter suggested we were either stupid or lazy for not having connected the two via the staff directory listing and reported it as fact.
Several commenters suggested we were trying to cover up the identity of the teacher.
Some suggested we had withheld the identity of someone charged with a crime when others would be routinely identified.
In fact, we simply had been unable to make an authoritative connection between the Law & Disorder item and the news story about the teacher being put on leave.
Again, most of these comments were disallowed, not because they criticized us – we can and do take that – but because the content of those comments would have made an identification that we had yet to confirm.
Why was it so hard to confirm?
The district was reluctant to identify DiDonna for reasons only it can explain, but my guess is that Superintendent Padalino wanted an opportunity to consult with the district’s legal counsel on Monday about what he could and could not say.
The state police likely were going through the same process on a Sunday evening; an officer on duty made it clear he had been instructed not to give out any more information than had been made available.
Early Monday morning, we were told the district attorney was away and, thus, unavailable.
My take? Everyone was trying to do their job responsibly and it was just taking more time than readers wanted on a very hot story.
The chorus of criticism of our failing to fully identify the teacher put on leave continued to grow through the morning.
At about 10:20a, a spokeswoman for the district contacted us and said the district now could confirm that it was DiDonna who was to be placed on administrative leave and it was connected to the arrest report we had published.
At about the same time, reporter Paula Mitchell obtained from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office a mugshot of DiDonna.
In this way we were finally able to identify the teacher who was placed on leave by the district for alleged drug offenses as the Matthew DiDonna who had been identified as having been arrested in Hurley on drug charges.
Within minutes, we had updated the story to bring together what had been two separate news items.
At about the same time, a number of readers began commenting about a death that they said was related to the DiDonna case.
That started us off on a new round of reporter inquiries to try to confirm there had been a death. But we approved the comments before confirming a death had occurred in relation to the case because the comments themselves made no accusation of criminality and, therefore, did not impugn the reputation of Mr. DiDonna.
Some readers subsequently criticized our reporting that state police were investigating the possible connection between the DiDonna case and the death of Mark Conlin, of 78 DeWitt Mills Road, Hurley. Since state police had not confirmed a connection between any drug sale DiDonna may have made and Conlin’s death, they said, it was irresponsible to report the interest of investigators.
I cannot agree. The medical emergency and subsequent death of Conlin triggered the chain of events that led to the arrest of DiDonna. That death was intimately connected to the news of the day and begged the question what authorities were doing about it. The answer to that question was: awaiting toxicology results. And that’s what we reported.
I should add that the way this story unfolded was not unusual. Typically, there are plenty of “civilians,” neither officials nor journalists, who happen to be physically or personally close to a breaking story such as a death. That proximity makes them better versed in the particulars of the story than reporters immediately can easily piece together.

It’s slow going for reporters at the beginning because:
-- official sources are treading carefully while awaiting instructions from higher ups;
-- the people who would normally be expected to release information don’t actually have a handle on the incident yet;
-- reporters have yet to identify and track down unofficial sources that might have first-hand knowledge of the event in question; and
-- even when unofficial sources are found by a reporter, they frequently are unwilling to speak on the record about what they know because it is an unfamiliar thing to be speaking to a reporter about a deadly serious matter. It makes them nervous.

Like I said, it isn’t artwork. It’s a matter of piecing things together responsibly.