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By John Pierce

Wednesday’s devastating storms severely damaged the new Ringgold High School. Well, it was “new” when my classmates and I moved in for our senior year in the fall of ’73.

As a Catoosa County, Ga., native with family and friends in the area, I followed the reports of the tornado damage as closely as possible into the night. The Weather Channel on TV and various news sites on my laptop gave me spotty, but at times helpful, information.

That is to be expected when an unpredictable storm hits after dark and knocks out lines of communication and physical access.

Interestingly, Facebook was the place where many of my Ringgold friends shared information. Some simply checked in to say they were OK. Others reported on damage near their homes or on the safety of others they had called.

Then reports of the damage started coming in — and my editor’s skeptical filter was put into good use. Both the professionals and the amateur reporters needed such filtering.

The Weather Channel repeatedly reported that a mass casualty trailer had been requested by the county and then painted a picture that suggested many more deaths than the eight now confirmed. But they were simply passing along limited information.

On Facebook, the old-style whispering “gossip game” played out in new technological fashion.

In reality, the destruction of human life and property in little Ringgold, Ga., needed no hyperbole. Aerial photos after daylight showed a town ravished by the estimated 175-mile-per-hour winds of an EF-4 tornado. And several homes out on scenic Cherokee Valley Road — where six persons have been confirmed dead — can be accurately described as “obliterated.”

But while bouncing around various Facebook pages during the unfolding of this disaster on Wednesday night, it was easy to see how the stories changed and grew as if teens were mouthing a line into another’s ear and then passing the ever-changing version around a circle.

The Ruby Tuesday near I-75 had its roof caved in. And McDonald’s and other nearby restaurants and convenience stores were hit hard too.

But it didn’t take long until I was reading that they had all been completely demolished. And the “new” high school, as well as the old high school (the middle school since we moved out in ’73), which sustained significant damage had “disappeared” according to some personal accounts.

One young, obviously excited poster even declared, “Ringgold no longer exists.”

Into the night, reports on various structures evolved from “damaged” to “destroyed” to “disappeared.” It seems that drama always breeds more drama.

While rescuers still dig through rubble, shocked eyes try to focus on the unbelievable scale of nature’s force, and some families and friends grieve deeply, the sad picture of reality creates enough drama.

Whether a professional reporter or a friend who passes along information to others, there is always a need to use care in what we say. A couple of basic guidelines:

One, speak authoritatively about only those things known to be certain. Otherwise, if someone feels compelled to speak, use a qualifier such as: “I think…” or “I’ve been told but haven’t verified that…” (Proclamations of truth should be made on very solid foundations of knowledge.)

Two, avoid exaggeration (unless an appropriate use of hyperbole) — especially in situations where accuracy is dramatic enough. In other words, during a devastating tornado, there is no need to twist the truth.

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