To keep public informed, details are needed

  • Saturday, March 8, 2014 3:24pm
  • Opinion

Social media can be a wonderful tool. With things like Facebook and Twitter, government entities have the ability to quickly share information with a large number of people.

But with that ability comes a responsibility to make sure that information is communicated accurately and completely. Doing that requires more than just a post on a Facebook page.

This week, a post on the Kenai Peninsula School District’s Facebook page noted that two students had been located after going missing from the Tustumena Elementary School campus during the school day. They were gone for about three hours before Alaska State Troopers found them. The Facebook post was made at 5:53 p.m. Monday after the students were located.

According to the post, law enforcement was contacted, and a search began. It goes on to read that, “Without releasing specific details, we are happy to report that both students were located, and no students in the school or community were in danger at any time in regard to this incident.”

In response to a question from a commenter about whether an alert had been issued, the district wrote that the initial “post was simply proactive in case rumors spread; we wanted everyone to know the students were safe.”

While we appreciate the district’s intent, social media posts with no specific details are exactly how rumors get started.

This is not the first time the district has used its Facebook page to communicate with the roughly 3,500 followers it has, rather than a more formal release of information.

In January, when a charter bus full of students crashed on the Richardson Highway, district staff posted on two different Facebook pages rather than taking the time to aggregate the information they had — and didn’t have — into a media release. The resulting rumors, several of which were communicated to Clarion staff, could have easily been dispelled had the district been more forthright and proactive with communicating to local media rather than relying on a notoriously inaccurate source of information to communicate news.

Government bodies should be held — should hold themselves — to a higher standard when communicating with the public. When a significant public safety issue arises — and two children missing from school seems to qualify — every effort should be made to provide the public with accurate, timely and detailed information. That means contacting local media, not simply posting to Facebook after the fact.

Certainly, the school district makes numerous more detailed posts on its Facebook page, such as one about a Department of Health and Social Services alerting the public to a cluster of cases of chicken pox in the area. In that case, the district’s post includes the DHSS press release in its entirety, as well as links to additional resources. And while the district frequently issues press releases to local media outlets, the Clarion received no release regarding this particular incident.

Keeping the public informed is no easy task. While we’re relieved that the two students were safe and sound when they were located, the district can do a better job of keeping the public informed. Perhaps the residents of Kasilof, had they been informed through local radio and newspaper channels, could have helped troopers locate the children.

The school district is in the business of educating while local media is in the business of communication. The school district should be working to develop open lines of communication, especially in situations where accurate and timely releases of news are paramount — rather than posting to a social network that is widely used as a source for spreading rumors.

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