Tuesday afternoon we were the first station to report that there was a "chemical scare" going on at a Raleigh private school. The word "chemical" was not ours, but came from emergency responders alerting others over the police scanner. Also over the scanner were reports that 40 to 50 children might be ill. Given the magnitude of last week's Apex fire and all of the school violence we've seen around the country lately, this was something we had to run on.
When we arrived at the scene we were greeted by a line of emergency officials who had surrounded the perimeter of the property. Clearly, in an emergency situation like this, these men and women have a job to do- part of that job is denying access to anyone who doesn't belong on the property. This usually includes the media. But denying us access also means denying us information. This meant we were forced to go on the air with what little we knew (from scanner traffic) and what little we could see (a few ambulances, police cars and fire trucks).
Each and every day reporters are sent to happenings in the community like this with very little information. We refer to these as "spot news" or "breaking news." Oftentimes we have only minutes to assess the situation before going on the air. The danger is obviously that we will get it wrong and even more importantly, that we might unnecessarily alarm people. But at the same time this is what we do. Our job is to inform people to the best of our ability when a situation is unfolding. This doesn't absolve us of our responsibility for being accurate, but it should allow for some leeway when it comes to reporting on a developing story.
Ultimately we learned that the "chemical" was pepper spray, and that ten children suffered from some minor symptoms and were being treated at WakeMed. We immediately got this information on our website. It turned out to be a minor event, an event that might not seem worthy of reporting. But the truth is that there was a major emergency response to this situation, one that prompted concern in the community, and one that needed to be explained to our viewers at 5:00 who tuned in at noon to see the story in its infancy.
Some people may say the school's response, the emergency response, and the media's response was overkill- but had it been a serious situation isn't that what the community would have demanded? I think so.