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Often Adversarial, Snowden Story Forces Reporters, PIO to Work Toward Accuracy

**Updated on June 12 at 9:10 a.m. to update Bob Mosier's titles and email distribution information**

By T.C. Cameron

It wasn’t going to take long for Edward J. Snowden’s name to be put through the keyhole and back.

Reporter Josh Stewart recognized Snowden’s name Sunday evening as a neighbor during the time he lived in Crofton, Md.

A former Annapolis Capital reporter now working for the Orange County (Calif.) Register, Stewart knew Bob Mosier, a former sports editor with the Maryland Gazette and editor-in-chief of the paper from 1994 to 2006, was the public information officer with the Anne Arundel County Public Schools. Stewart sent Mosier an email requesting confirmation if Snowden had attended Anne Arundel public schools.

“I received Josh’s email at 3:40 a.m. Monday (Eastern Standard Time) and I replied at 5:26 a.m.,” Mosier said. “After that I sent an email to our student data people asking them to look in the records for a student by this name, because at this point, I don’t have a birthdate, just a first and last name.”

This is the moment spokespersons for companies like Booz Allen Hamilton and government interests at the federal, state and local levels, including those in intelligence, national security and public education, began to assert their presence.

Mosier offered ExPress News a view from the inside looking out on a story as big as Snowden’s decision to become a NSA whistleblower.

“We never had Inside Edition call us before, but they did yesterday,” Mosier said. “We had a British reporter call, and we spent most of Monday on the phone with 25 to 30 reporters,” Mosier said. “The deluge of calls you’re receiving is from people doing their jobs so you have to respect that, even when you have people showing up at schools.”

For Mosier, the frenzy began when news broke that Snowden was a 29-year-old who grew up and went to school in Maryland.

“We have a lot of schools in Maryland, so you ask yourself, ‘What are the odds it’s one of your schools?’” Mosier said. “As it turns out, those odds were pretty good.”

Not long after that, newsgathering organizations like The Washington Post began knocking on the door at Arundel High School, better known for athletics than a contractor-turned-NSA leaker.

The difficulty in pinpointing if Snowden was a former county student came from a 14-year gap that includes a handful of rollovers to different student data systems the county has used. Mosier says his office was able to assert a factual timeline of Edward Snowden’s time in the county school system by noon, less than seven hours after the first request.

“That took some time, and as we know, reporters are famous for granting time, being patient and going without information for hours and hours,” Mosier said wryly. “If you call and say “What school did so-and-so go to?” That’s disclosable information. Schools of attendance are directory information, so there’s no question that's disclosable.”

Once Snowden was confirmed as a former Arundel student, the follow-up questions pertaining to yearbook photos and access to former teachers and former students who might know Snowden began in earnest. By this time, Mosier had already issued an email to the principals of the schools Snowden formerly attended about protocols for dealing with and speaking to the media.

Mosier said the communication addressed how to deal with reporters who may access their email addresses from the school website and how to address reporters who may show up at the school, as was the case with The Washington Post’s Peter Hermann. Mosier says he didn’t forbid anyone from speaking to reporters but encouraged staff members to avoid disrupting the week’s final exams schedule and other end of the year evaluations to speak with the media.

It took Ryan Morse less than 20 minutes to confirm Snowden had been an Arundel classmate of his via a yearbook Monday afternoon.

“He was a freshman when I was a junior,” said Morse, a middle school teacher who writes prep sports part time for the Capital. “It wasn’t hard to confirm because his picture now still looks a lot like he did then.”

The Capital was able to find a copy of an Arundel yearbook containing Snowden’s picture after reporter Sara Blumberg exhausted the usual repositories. Local public libraries didn’t possess copies of the yearbooks, so Blumberg posted her request on social media. A friend who knew an Arundel graduate was able to locate the specific book and allow Blumberg to scan the picture.

Mosier said his staff rounded up yearbooks from the schools Snowden had attended, snapped pictures and distributed those photos Tuesday morning to those who had previously asked for a photo of Snowden.

But when questions turned to Snowden’s academic work or his progress toward a diploma, Mosier couldn’t answer even if he knew the answer. He has been widely reported as a high school dropout.

“What kind of student was he? What kind of grades did he have? Was he receiving any unique services? That’s not disclosable,” Mosier said. “You just have to be upfront and say ‘I don’t know’ if you don’t know, and tell them when you cannot answer. It doesn’t make everyone happy but it’s truthful.”

Baltimore Sun reporter Jean Marbella tries to take into account all of these things, including deadlines, when dealing with public information officers.

“We were working under a very tight deadline, so I understand if all information wasn’t immediately available, and I also understand the privacy concerns,” Marbella said. “There really isn’t anything scandalous, but the first reaction seems to try to control the situation.”

Marbella looks for the most accurate story she can get in the time she has.

“The PIO should help smooth the way toward that information,” Marbella said. “The worst thing is no information, and the second worst thing is inaccurate information. In regards to this story, at a minimum they should let us know where Snowden attended, and they should make the school personnel available.”

Perhaps the worst thing a public information officer can do is try to tell someone not to speak. It often triggers a natural curiosity in most reporters.

“I’m always curious when people are told not to speak,” Marbella said. “It makes me wonder why those in charge don’t want them to speak.”

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