Perhaps you’ve played the game where several people sit in a row, someone whispers a short story in the first person’s ear and that person whispers it to the second, the second to the third and so on.
Usually the story the last person tells doesn’t much resemble the story the game started with — though there still might be a “kernel of truth” left over.
That’s how reality drifts and twists into rumor.
Now suppose that story involved a threat of serious harm to one or many and that multiple people knew some, but not all, of the facts behind that threat.
And you’re charged, as part of your job, with keeping the threat from becoming tragic reality — without unduly alarming your community if the threat turns out to be just another distorted rumor.
How would you go about it?
Would you express every rumor you hear for all the community to hear, whether by voice, in a news story or, in this day and age, via one or more social media modes?
Or would you set out to meticulously determine the truth, gathering and comparing the stories of various people while still quietly taking precautions against the worst?
If you did need the community’s help in gathering facts — while still guarding against causing panic — would you tell everyone everything you know all at once?
Or would you carefully ask, publicly or privately, for anyone in the community who might know one particular thing or another to contact you?
We’ve just described the responsibilities, and the dilemmas, that our elected and appointed officials in public safety and our schools face any time a potential threat is reported.
We who work in journalism truly appreciate how difficult their task is — because we also face that challenge of separating truth from rumor for the sake of public safety.
Sometimes friction arises between us and our neighbors who work in law enforcement and administer our schools as we play our respective roles in communicating to you what’s real and what isn’t. That’s inevitable.
Any of us might garble a fact or get something wrong. None of us is infallible, a reality journalists express when we refer to our task as writing “the first draft of history.”
But we know of absolutely no one in positions of leadership in our community and our schools who isn’t passionately dedicated to protecting every resident of every age.
We hope they — and you, our readers — feel likewise about us, though we must confirm that every day through our writings and personal actions.
One fact should be undisputed regarding one North Platte teenager’s recent written threat, left in a school restroom, to commit violence in school on a given date:
Our children, and their teachers and administrators, remained unharmed.
The threat was found. It was reported. Investigations ensued, involving both the school district and law enforcement. People with some knowledge of the situation were interviewed. Facts were sifted from accusations.
And, at the appropriate time, the people of North Platte were publicly notified that there had been a threat, that the person responsible for it was identified and appropriate action taken to ensure the threat didn’t turn into reality — if, in fact, it ever was meant to.
Public concern is surely understandable in the wake of such news, given what has happened in recent years at too many schools and too many other public places elsewhere in Nebraska and our country.
But we would hope the overwhelming majority of our residents would always and openly express thanks and gratitude to our first responders and school leaders as we do to those who wear our nation’s military uniforms.
What was expressed by a few people on social media, in the wake of this threat, amounted to the opposite. It was unjust.
And it would be unjust even had, heaven forbid, any part of this threat become reality this past week.
For if it had, we can assure you that the people charged with ensuring our safety would be sick at heart beyond imagining and asking themselves what else they could have done.
We thank them for the fine job they did. We believe most who live in North Platte do, too. It wouldn’t hurt to say so.