The phone rang a little before 10 p.m. on Monday, April 6. Post and Courier statehouse reporter Cynthia Roldan looked down at her cellphone and saw the name of an influential South Carolina lawmaker.
“You know I’d never call you this late unless it was really important,” the lawmaker told her the moment she hit the answer key. “There’s video of the shooting. And it’s bad. Really bad.”
“The shooting” had taken place three days earlier. It had been front-page news in The Post and Courier, and while there were some questions swirling around the traffic stop that led to the deadly encounter between Walter Scott and North Charleston Police patrolman Michael Slager, there was little to warn of the firestorm to come.
The lawmaker ended the call with a simple plea: “You have to figure out a way to get a hold of that video.”
Within the next 12 hours, Roldan and roughly a half dozen editors and reporters worked to establish who had the video and make arrangements to get a copy. Embargoes were put into place with The Post and Courier, The New York Times and ABC News, but like embargoes in other high-profile cases, it was a tenuous one. By early afternoon on May 7, The Post and Courier posted the first story by independently confirming the contents of the video and a news conference being hastily scheduled to address the issue. The news organization was also the first outlet to post screen shots from the video and posted the entire video moments after The New York Times broke the embargo.
The story shook the nation and forever changed the way we examine police shootings in this country.
Screen shots of the video posted on The Post and Courier’s Twitter account quickly made their way around the world, aided by the #WalterScott hashtag Charleston editors instructed all reporters to use before the story and video were posted. In the hours that followed, postandcourier.com and the news organization’s social media accounts became the go-to source for all Walter Scott news with up-to-the-minute information, including live video via Periscope, followed by quick-response enterprise that helped put this horrific incident into context. A large, home page takeover on our responsive website helped draw readers’ attention on desktop and mobile.
We did all of this in the middle of a search to fill our vacant social media editor position.
In addition to breaking news reports on our website and social media accounts, our Interactive Editor prepared several interactive graphics that helped readers understand this event. A map of the site helped readers understand how the situation developed. A data visualization that accompanied the video demonstrated that Officer Slager fired in a remarkably steady and measured way. Later, we used data to demonstrate the ways in which the North Charleston Police Department was woefully behind its peers when it came to hiring a diverse workforce.
However, strong online breaking news coverage is more than just minute-by-minute reporting. In the first 24 hours, we published stories detailing law enforcement experts’ analysis of the tape, the impact on the family and community and inaction by South Carolina lawmakers in the face of earlier calls to require police body cameras. Within the first 36 hours, we published an in-depth look at North Charleston’s long and complicated struggle to find a delicate balance between public safety and civil rights in a community beset by violent crime, and we analyzed the key differences between the violent reactions in Ferguson and the relative peace in South Carolina.
Our coverage underscored the critical role a well-funded, seasoned local newsroom can play in a tragedy like this one. By embracing new digital storytelling tools and combining those skills with talented, veteran reporters who know the community, we were able to offer the most immediate updates on the situation and the kind of depth that helped the rest of the nation put this tragedy into a larger context.