A redaction fail (and contempt?) for the Sun Sentinel

Sun Sentinel offices. Photo by Leslie Ovalle / South Florida Sun Sentinel

Since February, when Nikolas Cruz, a teenager in Parkland, Florida, opened fire on classmates and staff at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, the South Florida Sun Sentinel has been covering the story. On Friday, when Elizabeth Scherer, a judge in Broward County, ordered that a report—commissioned by the local school board, on how the district had dealt with Cruz before the shooting—be made public, Sun Sentinel reporters were eager to publish it. The report was heavily redacted, however, at the request of Cruz’s attorneys and the school’s leadership, who argued that omissions were necessary to protect Cruz’s privacy.

Around 5pm that afternoon, the Sun Sentinel published an article featuring the report. “Of the report’s 1,707 lines, 1,078 of them—or about 64 percent—are blacked out,” the story explained. The conclusion, reached by the Collaborative Educational Network of Tallahassee, seemed to be that the district had mostly handled Cruz’s case appropriately. But the report did identify two instances in which the district failed—details weren’t clear. Later that evening, Brittany Wallman, a senior reporter who had a byline on the article, experienced a “wow moment.” A reader pointed out, via a Facebook message, that if you copied the report into a Microsoft Word document, the entirety of the text was visible. It was “incredible that the school district would be that sloppy,” Wallman tells CJR in an email. “It was unbelievable.”

ICYMI: “I spent 45 minutes on the phone with Megyn Kelly asking her to not run that show”

Now fully legible, the report revealed that, when Cruz was a junior and faced being taken out of Stoneman Douglas High, district officials failed to accurately communicate his options and, based on wrong information, he turned down special education services. When Cruz requested to admission to a school for special education students, the district “did not follow through.”

Julie Anderson, the paper’s editor-in-chief, tells CJR that she and her colleagues discussed the report with their attorneys and decided to publish a new story. “We realized it was out there,” she says. “Anybody could get to it.” Their lawyers assured them that they had obtained it legally. On Saturday morning, a second story appeared, “Here’s what Broward schools knew about Parkland shooter—details revealed by mistake.”

On Monday, Barbara Myrick, a lawyer for the school board, asked that Judge Scherer hold the Sun Sentinel and two of its reporters—Wallman and Paula McMahon—in contempt of court for publishing what should have been redacted text. In a petition, Myrick argued that the paper “opted to report, publicly, information that this court had ordered to be redacted despite agreeing, on the record, that this information was protected by Florida and federal law.” When reached for comment the next day, a spokesperson for the school board told CJR that they had nothing to say on the matter. Yet that afternoon, they met for a rather awkward discussion—none of them had been made aware that Myrick had filed her request, which, according to the Sun Sentinel, “was made in somewhat of an emergency basis.” A hearing has yet to be scheduled.

Sign up for weekly emails from the United States Project

The Sun Sentinel wasn’t the only paper to cover the report’s hidden elements—a local ABC affiliate published a story, too, and the glitch was publicized on Twitter—but it was the first. Worst case, according to the Associated Press, the paper could face a fine and the reporters, jail time. Anderson says that the paper’s attorneys are preparing a response, and that Wallman and McMahon will not report on the petition. They will, however, continue to report on Cruz’s case. And they have no regrets. “It was the right thing to do,” Dana Banker, the managing editor, says. “There was so much strong interest in this community for this story. We really need to get the most complete, relevant story out that we can.”

From archives: “She identified herself as a reporter. He then walked behind her and punched her in the side of the head” 

Has America ever needed a media watchdog more than now? Help us by joining CJR today.

Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.