SARATOGA -- When the stories started sweeping through the national media that Audrie Pott had killed herself after half-naked photos of the 15-year-old girl "spread like wildfire" through Saratoga High, the editors at her student newspaper suspected something wasn't right.
No one they knew had seen the photos that a lawyer for Audrie's family said "went viral" after she passed out at a drunken house party and was sexually assaulted by three classmates in September 2012.
But suddenly, professional reporters were descending upon the elite Silicon Valley high school, portraying it as the latest hot spot for teenage cyberbullying. In a bold move that would make them the target of intense criticism and excruciating self-doubt, the staff of the Falcon newspaper dug into -- and refuted -- the narrative that a large part of the student body had seen the humiliating photos and did nothing to speak out.
Their resulting story -- and their decision to defy a subpoena and protect the confidentiality of their sources -- has now earned them an award from the Society of Professional Journalists.
Their reporting found that roughly 10 students had seen the photos and there was no evidence they were posted on social media.
And sure enough, while the boys admitted in juvenile court to sexually assaulting Audrie and possessing the photos, there wasn't evidence they widely disseminated the pictures.
Still, Samuel Liu, the Falcon's co-editor-in-chief, says there is nothing to celebrate.
"You don't come out of this with a badge or an award," said Liu, an 18-year-old senior. "It was such a serious issue, to say we came out triumphant would be inappropriate and offensive because there are no winners."
At a time when most teenagers were studying for their midterms and preparing for prom last spring, Liu, Sabrina Chen, 16, and Cristina Curcelli, 17, who was co-editor-in-chief along with Liu, found themselves caught up in a national story that would test their resolve and subject them to the kind of vitriol that even thick-skinned professionals can find hard to take. Critics accused them of being "selfish and ridiculous" by caring more about the school's reputation than the injustice toward Audrie and her family.
"Throughout all this, there was a lot of second-guessing and introspection," said Liu. "We realized we were in a highly controversial area, and I kept asking myself: Was it worth it? Were we doing the right thing?"
Audrie's attackers were pulled out of class and arrested in April 2013, seven months after she killed herself and two days before the campus cleared out for spring break. Chen, a sophomore, like Audrie, and the Falcon's "in-depth editor," was immediately tasked with interviewing her classmates. Assuring them anonymity, Chen found three students who were close enough to Audrie and the suspects to know that no more than 10 or so students had seen the photos on the boys' cellphones. She found no evidence that the photos had been posted to Facebook or other social media.
"We felt beyond terrible for this family and how they suffered," Liu said. "In our stories we published, we realized we were in some ways refuting their claims and we were bringing more trouble to a family that had suffered so much already."
But they believed the allegations that the photos went viral were wrong.
"We felt the school had been portrayed unjustly," he said, "that we had all been engaging in child pornography, and that hadn't happened at all."
The staff worked around the clock through that first weekend and into spring break, posting stories online with headlines saying "only 10 students" saw the photos, and "Pott case twisted to fit anti-cyberbullying agenda."
Both stories were flooded with dozens of reader comments, most anonymous, accusing the Falcon staff of trivializing the crimes.
"You idiots at Saratoga High have no idea what total insensitive freaks you have made yourself look like," one wrote.
The comments cut deep. In the midst of studying for his Advanced Placement exams, Liu considered whether the paper was addressing the important issues. Were they being sensitive enough to the family?
"I was completely wracked with self-doubt," Liu said.
In the next issue of the Falcon, the final issue before summer break, they came back with stories quoting students lambasting the actions of the boys and the administration for allowing them to remain on campus and asking the tough questions of whether the school had learned anything from the tragedy.
The three high school reporters thought the Pott story was over. But on their first day of school last fall, they were handed a subpoena from Pott family lawyer Robert Allard, asking for their sources on the cyberbullying story -- sources they promised they would not identify.
"I didn't even know what subpoena meant," Chen said. But they all knew they would not give up sources they promised to protect.
Their stance disappointed Allard, who said Friday he may have misused the word "viral" at first, but from Facebook messages Audrie sent before her death, she felt like the whole school knew what happened to her.
"It seems like the thrust of the article was to disprove the use of the word 'viral,'" instead of saying, 'Wow, we've got 10 kids who laid their eyes on these really bad photos when this woman was in this very vulnerable state,'" Allard said. "The whole message was misplaced in my view."
Still, media lawyer Guylyn Cummins said the students were "pretty courageous."
Cummins sent a letter to Allard on the students' behalf invoking California's Shield Law, which protects journalists in many cases from revealing their sources. After receiving the letter, Allard dropped the subpoena.
"There are many situations where you can feel conflicted as a person," she said, "but your job as a journalist is to report the facts."
Contact Julia Prodis Sulek at 408-278-3409. Follow her at Twitter.com/juliasulek.