An off-campus party took a turn for the worse last weekend when a staircase collapsed, leaving partygoers scratching their heads and wondering, “What went wrong?”
Sources say at least 80 people attended a party at a Foothill Boulevard house last Friday night when the backyard stairs suddenly fell to the ground. Reports of an injury to a female student have surfaced, but remain unverified.
Men inside the house Monday afternoon said they were unaware of the accident and declined to go into specifics about what may have happened that night. The landlord of the property, who declined to state his name, said he was investigating the accident and was not aware of any injuries or a cause for the collapse.
A San Luis Obispo Police Department spokesperson said the agency did not respond to the incident.
I’ll be honest, writing that seemed pathetic. Not because it was a bad lede to the story or because it wasn’t true, but because I knew it was all I had. Never before have I been so stonewalled on a story, so unable to drum up any new information. Knowing there’s a story out there, but that there’s not enough sources to get it published, that’s not a fun place to be.
A little bit of background on the party, though. The story started out how a lot of big ones do: through the rumor mill and grossly distorted. I heard from a friend of a friend on Saturday afternoon that a girl was paralyzed at a fraternity party when the stairs collapsed due to hundreds of people standing on them. Always a skeptic, I asked her if she knew anyone there I could talk to. She didn’t want to tell me their names. Why? She was afraid they’d get in trouble for partying, or she’d get in trouble for helping a reporter whose story could eventually hurt the reputation of the house owners. I should’ve known at that point that was all I’d be hearing for the next few days.
Throughout the weekend I asked around more, eventually finding out the stairs did indeed fall down at a party Friday night. No one else heard a girl was paralyzed, though about half the people I talked to said they heard someone broke their leg. Of course, no one would let me use their name when they said that, so the information was as good as worthless.
An anonymity policy is a funny thing in a newspaper. It can save your credibility big time, but it can also make it very difficult to get stories nailed down. I personally think we have a very good policy here at the Mustang Daily. Our newspaper makes sure we hold our sources accountable, but still allows for flexibility to get an important story published.
But when phone call after phone call, interview after interview, begins and ends with “So my name won’t be in the paper, right?” it gets hard to keep turning down sources. That was the trouble in reporting this — no one wanted to get their friends at the party in trouble.
But the lack of source cooperation, if inconvenient, was understandable and not totally unexpected. I had to think of a Plan B, and fast. In news, timing is everything, and getting this story out in Tuesday’s paper would have been a huge win for the paper. So Monday afternoon, after having an anonymous source confirm where the house was via Google maps, I went there with notebook and camera in hand.
“Hi, I’m Sean McMinn from the Mustang Daily, up on campus. I’m looking into a party that happened here Friday night. We heard something about the stairs collapsing and wanted to look into it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about. Why are you looking into this, you trying to screw us over?”
“No, but when we hear a report of someone getting hurt on or near campus like this, it’s something we try to look into. Can you tell me if this is the right house?”
“No, man. I think the stairs came down next door.”
The conversation lasted a little bit longer, but that’s as far as I got. After 15 minutes passed, the landlord kicked me off the property, but did tell me he was looking into stairs collapsing in the backyard. I guess he hadn’t gotten the memo from the guys inside the house to tell me it was next door.
Even though I knew it was a load of crap I was being fed from the guys I just talked to, I felt like it was my journalistic responsibility to go talk to the house next door, which they said was also a fraternity house. The guy who answered the door was fresh out of a Jimmy Tatro Frat Life video, but, honestly, he was my favorite source I talked to throughout the entire ordeal of trying to find out the truth about what happened. He wasn’t particularly helpful, but he was maybe the first person who seemed to be straight with me that day.
“I have no idea what happened, man,” he said. “I was downtown all weekend.”