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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: A tip and a paper trail led to the Derrick Washington story

By Tom Warhover
August 27, 2010 | 5:45 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

A hundred little decisions, and a few big ones, were made as Missourian reporters scrambled to find out exactly what happened with Derrick Washington this summer and why he was suspended Thursday afternoon.

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Before Thursday’s practice, it was announced that the star tailback for the Missouri football team had been suspended indefinitely. By 10 p.m., the Missourian posted an exclusive story describing allegations of sexual assault by a woman who took out a restraining order against him back in June.

Some of the choices:

The easy call: The Missourian generally doesn’t name victims of sexual assault. There have been exceptions, but they’re rare.

Missourian reporters knew the victim’s name by late afternoon. They were told to keep her name anonymous.

Timing is everything: Sports editor Greg Bowers knew of Washington’s suspension as practice began Thursday. At about 4:30 p.m., he got the tip that there were allegations of sexual assault involved.

Reporter Will Guldin was in the newsroom, working on a story that had nothing to do with sports. He and an assistant city editor were sent to the Boone County Courthouse, where they found the orders of protection against Washington.

By about 4:45 p.m., they were on the way back to the newsroom. If Bowers had waited for his football beat writers to return from practice, they wouldn’t have found the documents Thursday.

Why? The courthouse closes at 5.

Is @ appropriate? The story was published at 9:58 p.m. Thursday on ColumbiaMissourian.com, and a Twitter post was made about the same time.

Someone suggested an @ post be made as well. That is, the symbol followed by Washington’s screen name.

You could think of it in the same way as someone’s e-mail address. So if I tweeted “the emperor has no clothes,” you could reply with an @warhovert so I and everyone else would be able to follow the string of posts.

But it’s not e-mail. Unless users designate privacy settings, screen names are open to all other Twitter users.

After all, the point of social media is to be, well, social.

Washington has a large following on Twitter – 3,147 at noon Friday.

An @ to Washington would notify all of them.

Some of the staff thought it could also be an unfair poke in the eye.

After all, Washington knows his own situation, even if all those following him do not.

There was no consensus. So the prudent decision to wait was made.  That’s consistent with the old saw – when in doubt leave it out – when publishing sensitive stories.

I’m ambivalent. There are issues of privacy and fairness here. (Do we identify all sources we write about this way? Only those who are actively tweeting or have a follower threshold of some sort?)

It seems to me, though, that this is the language of the platform. The @ is a way for followers to organize and sift information.

Some of the reporters asked for a Missourian policy. I don’t understand enough to make one.

Even if I did, I’m generally against creating too many policies. They supplant critical thinking and ethical decision-making.

Besides, I don’t know of a policy that would cover most of the scenarios, and by the time one was created, the conventions by Twitter users would have probably already shifted.

Speculation vs. facts: If the order of protection was issued against Washington on June 22, why did the team wait until now to suspend him?

No one would provide a timeline that made sense.

The prosecuting attorney said the case had been referred to her but didn't specify when.

Missouri Athletic Director Mike Alden said he had known of the case for “a few weeks.”

By noon Friday, Missourian reporters were getting closer but still searching for the answer. Already there has been plenty posted, but nothing by way of provable facts.

There was discussion of whether to include the question, even without an answer, in Thursday’s story.

The decision: Leave it out and keep looking.

P.S.: A comment on one site suggested this competitive conspiracy: The Missourian held the story until 9:58 p.m. so ESPN couldn’t get it for its Thursday evening broadcast.

Oh to be so crafty.

Sorry. It’s not true.

Tom