AP State News Reports: Hostage-taking unfolds on Facebook

Sept. 25, 2012
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Klein Michael Thaxton arrest
Klein Michael Thaxton, center, is lead into Pittsburgh Police headquarters after being apprehended without incident at Three Gateway Center in Pittsburgh, Friday Sept. 21, 2012. Thaxton held a businessman hostage inside the office building for more than five hours Friday, posting Facebook updates during the standoff, and surrendered to authorities without incident, police said. (AP Photo/The Tribune-Review, JC Schisler)
In this memo to AP staff, Managing Editor for State News, Financial News and Global Training Kristin Gazlay describes how reporters were able to tell the breaking story of a hostage-taking while providing added context on the use of social media in dangerous situations.

An Army veteran holds a businessman hostage in a downtown office building in Pittsburgh for more than five hours before surrendering. The high-rise is evacuated, but no one is hurt. That's a story, to be sure – but is it the best story we could tell? Instead of just covering what had the hallmarks of a routine hostage-taking, discussions among state, regional and Nerve Center players identified a not-so-obvious angle beyond the spot event. 

The suspect was posting to his Facebook page during the hostage situation, telling the world in a very public way that he was tired of his life and at the end of his rope. AP's reporting blended the spot news of the hostage-taking with an examination of how the rise of social media offers public platforms that can both help and hinder law enforcement in life and death situations. With social media in the equation, one expert noted, countless people could communicate with the suspect, potentially provoking him "for better or for worse.”
The combined efforts of journalists in Pennsylvania (Joe Mandak, Michael Rubinkam, Kevin Begos and Randy Pennell) and New York (Barbara Ortutay and David Crary) enabled AP to develop a multilayered story in real time – not a cycle or two later. The reporters worked in concert to pull together the breaking elements, along with the context and clarity that helped the story achieve a deft blend of spot news, analysis and critical look at the new challenges facing law enforcement.
Pittsburgh's Mandak reported from the scene, talking to police and calling in details, including providing material for radio. Rubinkam, in northeast Pennsylvania, monitored the suspect’s Facebook page, summing up his desperate posts. Business News’ Ortutay, who contributed technology expertise and experts, and Pittsburgh correspondent Begos, who talked to law enforcement negotiation experts, also fed context and details to National Writer David Crary, who crafted the story. And Pennell, the breaking news staffer in Philadelphia, desked the story, ensuring it was up to date with the latest information.

For working together seamlessly to tell the story behind the story and shed light on a modern problem, Begos, Crary, Mandak, Ortutay, Pennell and Rubinkam win this week's $300 Best of the States prize.

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