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Opinion CNN’s dicey interview with student on lockdown after Maryland school shooting

Police move students into a different area of Great Mills High School, the scene of a shooting Tuesday in Great Mills, Md. (Alex Brandon/AP)
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CNN host John Berman was in an all-too-familiar bind Tuesday morning. There were reports of a school shooting at Great Mills High School in St. Mary’s County.

Official sources provided only scant details, as Berman apprised his viewers on Tuesday’s edition of the morning program “New Day.” There was a shooting; the school was on lockdown; the situation had been “contained.” In the absence of hard news, CNN did what cable news providers do — it called in an expert. “Let’s bring in James Gagliano, former FBI supervisory special agent, to help us decipher what we know,” said Berman, inquiring as to what it meant that officials had “contained” the incident. “Making sure that there’s no ingress or egress routes that attackers could be coming in or trying to leave. Obviously finding out who did it is important, but the preeminent purpose of law enforcement in this incidence is to interdict and stop the shooting,” said Gagliano.

As Gagliano chatted away with host Erica Hill, Berman stepped in:

BERMAN: Hang on one second, guys. I believe we have someone from the school on the phone right now, a student, Matthew Taggert.
Matthew, can you hear me right now?
STUDENT: No, no, that’s my — that’s my teacher’s name. My name’s Jonathan.
BERMAN: Jonathan.
BERMAN: Jonathan, tell me where you are right now and what’s happening.

Jonathan was in lockdown in math class. In a calm discussion, Berman and Hill asked the basics, such as what happened, what he was being told, what time the shooting had happened, whether the school had done training for an incident of this sort. “A couple times. I didn’t really expect for this to happen,” said Jonathan. “I do feel safe, though, because they always have police in our school. And they’re ready for something like this. It’s something they couldn’t really prevent because they have a couple officers, but they’re really well-trained officers. And there could have been more casualties, which I’m glad there wasn’t. Everyone is well trained for it.”

As to what it was like to be in such a situation, Jonathan replied, “People are trying to find out what happened still because it’s still kind of like closed off. We can’t go anywhere. So we’re just stuck in a classroom trying to find out on social media maybe what happened, on Snapchat or stuff like that. It spreads like a wildfire.” He also said this: “I’m still a little shaken up about it even happening.”

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Over the course of the conversation, the student reported that there was “one person supposedly dead” and seven injured.

After going through all the ins and outs, Jonathan said, “I’m going to have to let you go because the police are outside the door right now.” Even so, Berman attempted to keep the interview going: “Jonathan, can you stay on the phone with us as you walk out?” No, he couldn’t.

The Erik Wemple Blog has watched hundreds of hours of John Berman interviews, during which time the host has proved himself to be among the most agile, knowledgeable and fair voices in all of televised news. Anyone who leaves him off their year-ending top-media-people lists is missing something. Congruent with those qualities, Berman was careful not to anneal the student’s comments into confirmed fact. “It sounds like he’s trying to get his information as best he can. I mean, it’s not coming in particularly fast and furious so he’s collecting what he can, so we do not know if the information he has about the seven students is the most current information, or if it is, in fact, accurate.”

More from Berman: “But the good news from his perspective is the incident does appear over. He is being led out of the classroom right now and by all accounts, the students who were there are safe.”

Subsequent news accounts credit Berman’s word of caution about the student’s assessment; two students were injured and one, the shooter, died.

In a news environment hungry for every iterative wrinkle, however, some folks latched onto Jonathan’s numbers and didn’t listen to carefully to Berman’s caveats. For instance, the Telegraph initially reported that seven were injured, based on the interview with Jonathan. The seven-injured figure received some pass-around on social media, as well.

There is a case for CNN’s decisions in the Great Mills shooting. First off, the announcement by authorities that the situation was “contained” is an important detail, indicating that the students were not under any threat at the time of the call. And, yes, input from a student who can provide certain details and atmospherics on a school shooting is newsworthy.

The opposing case, however, is a stronger one: CNN engaged a student to pass along casualty stats from a school shooting, even though the student himself made clear that his own familiarity with the details was limited. And then, when police showed up to escort him and his classmates from the school, CNN asked him to stay on the line, presumably to get a guided audio tour of the aftermath. No!

As ever, the goal on CNN — and more broadly in cable news — is to find ways to fill info-vacuums. First the network sought to do so with an expert (boring). Then it sought to do so with a student on the scene (not boring, but rife with speculation). Apparently not an option: Pursue other stories while waiting for something firmer out of St. Mary’s County.

CNN PR turned down a request to interview Berman.

Teachers are serving as bodyguards, therapists, soup kitchens and parents. And now we want them to carry guns, too? Wake up, America. We've got a problem. (Video: Adriana Usero, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)