Central Michigan University Communications Questions

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I’m grateful to a student in our class, Juan Pablo Lopez, for submitting an idea for discussion. He is an editor for NSM Today here on campus, and he has a real-life challenge for us. Please read through the following (including the Orlando Sentinel story) and write 150-250 words on how you would approach this kind of situation in the future. I will be grading on thoughtfulness, ethics-based reasoning, clarity, style/grammar/spelling … and of course your reply to one other student in the class.

(If the Sentinel story is behind a paywall by the time you click on it, please just do a news search for “Shay Johnson Orlando.”)


I had an idea for a class discussion after one of our reporters went to cover the vigil for Tyre Sampson, a 14-year-old kid who died at the Freefall ride in Icon Park.

The reporter did everything they were supposed to do. Gather information, gather the facts, talk to officials and family members and even apply one of our ethical principles, minimizing harm. The reporter also spoke to a family member present at the vigil, Shay Johnson, a woman who identified as Tyre’s cousin during interviews, not only to the NSM Reporter but to WKMG and other news outlets.

Days after the vigil, the Orange County Sheriff’s Office released a statement saying that Tyre’s mother had told detectives she does not know Shay Johnson, the woman who had been giving interviews and who was at the vigil claiming to be Tyre’s cousin.

The story that NSM published had strong quotes from her, one of them stating how hard it was for her to clean up the blood at the base of the Orlando Freefall ride. The reporter told Shay could not stop crying and that it seemed like she was very affected by Tyre’s passing.

In this case how can a reporter be sure that the person they are interviewing it’s actually the person they are claiming to be? You don’t want to be insensitive in a situation like this, and to be honest if you see someone crying and giving statement to the press, it’s very easy to just go with it without verifying the facts.

But this taught us a huge lesson; we can’t trust what someone is saying just because it seems very real. As the news editor this was very infuriating to see. How can someone pretend to be someone else, and used Tyre’s family pain just to be on camera?

NSM Today, just like the other news outlets who ran stories saying Shay Johnson was Tyre’s cousin, had to run a correction and remove all her quotes from the story.

Now, how can reporters make sure this doesn’t happen to them? And what would be a way to verify that in fact the person is who they are claiming to be without being insensitive to their situation?


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