Sean Scully

Sean Scully is editor of the Napa Valley Register. You can reach him at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

This has been a wild week in Napa. A wild month, really. It seems that spring is just a season of strange stories around here.

Most of the kind of journalism we do is of a relatively sedate nature – attending meetings, reviewing documents, watching sporting events, conducting interviews.

But once in a while, news breaks out in weird or unexpected ways – say, a shooting by police officers or a man trapped inside the walls of a fast food restaurant. In the business, we generally call this “spot news.”

In a lot of ways, that’s the most exciting kind of news, for both reporters and readers. As a reporter, you are the public’s front line eyes and ears. You have to race into an uncertain situation – often with only the haziest idea of what you’re even about to witness – and try to make sense of a chaotic scene. Often even the police and other authorities on the scene aren’t entirely sure what happened yet, and witness are still trying to get over their shock. In rare cases, reporters arrive even before the authorities.

That sort of reporting is inevitably messy, particularly in this age when websites and social media have given us the capability of – and whetted the public’s considerable appetite for – nearly instantaneous reporting from the scene of a disaster, crime, or other breaking news. That means the first reports are often garbled or incomplete.

A really good spot news reporter, therefore, is one who is able to keep calm, ask the right questions, and try to stick to the facts as he or she knows them at the moment. Tell the readers what you do know and be open about what you don’t know. And most of all, don’t be afraid to correct the record if later developments show that the first information was wrong.

As exciting as it is, it’s also an unnerving kind of reporting to do – you’re out there without a lot of backup and because of the urgency of the situation, many of the normal safeguards and restraints that protect you from making mistakes aren’t there.

Some reporters hate this sort of thing for that reason. I happen to love it, and we’re lucky to have some reporters who are very good at it – Howard Yune, Barry Eberling, Maria Sestito and photographer JL Sousa all did great jobs in various aspects of reporting our breaking news this week.

There are other kinds of breaking news that don’t involve murder, mayhem, and disaster, and we’ve had our share this week as well. Our head sport writer Marty James had a great scoop on the resignation of Napa High football Coach Troy Mott, for example, and Noel Brinkerhoff got thrown into the unexpectedly complicated and emotionally fraught hearing over the possible expulsion of a student implicated in the Napa High hazing scandal.

Even though this isn’t exactly “spot” news, these kinds of hot news stories have many of the same kinds of pressures and dangers because of their urgency: information is complicated and incomplete, it is easy to misunderstand something on the fly that might make more sense if you had more time to consider and investigate. And indeed, we had to correct the wording in one of the hazing hearing stories because of a good-faith misunderstanding of some of what was being said.

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Which brings up a question I have gotten a lot in the last week: why on earth did we name the young man at the heart of the expulsion hearing, Johnny Torres, even publishing a photograph of him, when we haven’t done so for any of the other students accused in the hazing case? In fact, we’ve had a number of angry callers, accusing us of breaching the kid’s privacy.

The answer is very simple: The boy’s family and attorney asked that his expulsion hearing be open to the public, and therefore the press.

Normally, we don’t name people under 18 who are implicated in criminal cases, or in school disciplinary cases, unless they are charged with a crime in an adult court. Partly, this is practical, because it is often very difficult to get the names of youths in that situation because schools and courts won’t release that information. And partly it is philosophical, in recognition that children usually deserve a higher degree of protection than adults can expect.

Certainly none of us in the newsroom can recall anything like this happening before, but the family and lawyer basically invited us to cover the issue and identify the boy involved in this particular case. If any of the other students request an open hearing, or if any are charged as adults in the hazing scandal, we’d identify them in the same way.

Now, exciting as the last week or two has been, here’s hoping to a quieter week this week.

You can reach Sean Scully at 256-2246 or sscully@napanews.com.

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Editor

Sean has been editor of the Napa Valley Register since April of 2014. His previous credits include the Press Democrat, The Weekly Calistogan, The Washington Times and Time and People magazines.