news isn’t artwork.
lucky, it looks like a craft, at best.
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.
pretty much sums up the reporting this week of the news of the arrest of
Kingston High School teacher Matthew DiDonna.
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.”
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.”
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.
it seemed to be a match.
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.
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.
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
readers were hammering us with online postings early the next morning would be
putting it mildly.
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.
commenters suggested we were trying to cover up the identity of the teacher.
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.
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?
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.
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.
morning, we were told the district attorney was away and, thus, unavailable.
Everyone was trying to do their job responsibly and it was just taking more
time than readers wanted on a very hot story.
of criticism of our failing to fully identify the teacher put on leave
continued to grow through the morning.
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.
At about the
same time, a number of readers began commenting about a death that they said
was related to the DiDonna case.
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.
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.
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.
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.