SAN ANTONIO – There have been questions about why newsrooms filed a lawsuit against the Texas Department of Public Safety over its refusal to release records in the Robb Elementary School massacre.
“The media is the fourth estate, and our job is to inform the public,” said Antoinette Winstead, who has nearly 30 years of experience teaching mass communications.
Winstead currently serves as director of the Escobedo School of Mass Communication and Theater and the director of the drama program at Our Lady of the Lake University.
When it comes to covering a story, Winstead said information must be for the greater good.
“Ethically, I think that we need to know,” Winstead. “We need to know what happened, and as long as the stakeholders are in agreement that this is just for the information to inform people about what’s going on, (we) need to know. You’re always going to have people that push back.”
Although she admits not everyone wants to know the details surrounding the deadliest school shooting in Texas history, it is the duty of all news media professionals to seek the facts.
“If we’re getting this information that’s actually going to inform citizens and help them make informed decisions about who they vote for, it’s our job as media professionals to provide that information,” Winstead said. “And that’s a big part of it, too. When you have officials in office that are voted for, we need to know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it.”
The news outlets have requested records that include emails, call logs, 911 records, unredacted body-worn camera video and other footage, interview notes, forensic and ballistic records, and lists of DPS personnel who responded to the tragedy.
“As long as it’s there for those purposes and not like tabloid journalism, then it’s ethically correct,” Winstead said.
Winstead said transparency from officials could also prevent leaked information.
“Then you don’t have people trying to get information that way,” Winstead said about the leaked surveillance video from inside Robb Elementary. “You have people that are trying to get it the right way.”
Laura Prather, a partner at Haynes and Boone and is the lead counsel representing the media coalition, said, “I think that the goal of the lawsuit and the exemptions that are being asserted by DPS are entirely discretionary. They are things that they can choose to hide, or they can choose to disclose.”
Prather said a ruling could take months to more than a year.
“I think the public outcry is clear. People want answers. And so instead of invoking a discretionary exemption, what (the media coalition wants) is the public to have the information so that they can regain some trust in law enforcement,” Prather said. “…a lot of the materials and correspondents from that day are still shrouded in secrecy. What the media coalition is trying to do here is to unearth what happened during that day so that this community can have closure.”
It’s not the first time media outlets have joined forces to seek public information.
“Actually, this has happened, sadly, in several other similar mass shootings,” Prather said. “You see a media coalition in Florida coming together to get the information surrounding the Parkland shooting there. They also saw a media coalition come together in Las Vegas around the concert shooting there. These are coalitions that are really fighting for the truth for the general public and to obtain records that are the general public’s records.”
According to Prather, DPS will need to file an answer to the lawsuit by the end of the month.
“After that, we can present the arguments to the court to consider whether or not these discretionary exemptions were correctly utilized,” Prather said.
Winstead said she plans to use the media coalition’s fight for information as an example for her mass media course.
“I think that this is a good example of media law and media ethics. It’s also a chance for students to see how their voice can be used to make a change and also to inform people,” Winstead said. “All these children were killed, and so we need to know what happened, what didn’t work, so that it doesn’t happen again. And the media (is) there to keep people honest.”