Bad News

Guest post by John Allore

Some recent local news items have got me chewing bile.

The Chapel Hill News, never afraid to address the tough issues (who can forget the three year saga of what is to become of the Orange County Animal Protection Society), has hit us again with another barn-burner:

Newsflash!...

The first annual Rock Paper Scissors Tournament took place over the weekend at the Cave in Chapel Hill. In case you missed the excitment, the News has devoted 31 paragraphs and front page status to the inaugural event.

Meanwhile...

On Monday evening two women were the victims of sexual assaults at two Carrboro apartment complexes. In both incidents men broke into the victims homes. In one of the assaults, the victim was molested at knife point; in the other, the woman - who struggled - was tied up and raped. Currently both suspects (or one?) are at-large.

So where is the Chapel Hill News' voice on this matter? Umm, it's muffled, buried in a foot-note in the "In Brief" section of the paper, (I seemed to be the only one of my friends who bothers to read this section) summarized in five brief paragraphs (I can't even find the story on the on-line edition of the paper).

Dear Chapel Hill News: In the matter of violence against women, the key to
prevention is awareness. As a newspaper you have a great responsibility here. Do not take it lightly.

John Allore blogs at whokilledtheresa.blogspot.com.

Issues: 

Total votes: 143

Comments

I hear you on the possible relevance of the marital issues in the life of the president (or military service issues or whatever). But Chapel Hill Town Council member is really not such a bully pulpit, I can assure you. And one's moral authority for holding the office seems like a strained issue. Particularly when it comes to the details of his divorce. While divorce proceedings could easily be of relevance to the public, what I am really saying is that THEY WERE NOT RELEVANT in that case.

It's an issue of editorial judgment, of course. I just question whether there is any editorial judgment at the Herald. Or for that matter, whether I need to support it. There are journalists (not at the Herald) who feel that papers should report the names of rape victims etc. These reporters are mostly mistaking the RIGHT to print thsoe names with the public's NEED to know. Yes, they have the right to print it; no, there is no need for the information.

This person's divorce is a much more tame example, of course. But it gets to the same issue. The sad part is that I don't think the Herald sold so much as one extra paper as a result of the coverage they gave to the 'story'. And I know plenty of people who don't read it for just that reason.

-Mark Chilton

Weird feeling reading the original post...

The main reason that I don't like watching local television news (besides the ads and stupid banter) is that there is never a crime that they don't find worth reporting. Issues that I consider important usually aren't reported, especially if there's no backdrop with flashing lights and uniformed officers. That's why I read the NY Times and the CH News. I know that there is lots of crime in our society. I saw all the cars in front of the Rape Crisis Center last weekend, and I know that they have lots to do. But I don't want to read about crime very much. Oh, another crime! I'll learn a lot by reading about it. Not.

I don't have the News in front of me, but I do glance at the Police Blotter occasionally and I bet that there were other serious crimes that were also not reported in feature stories.

IMHO the complaint about the News' lack of coverage is a *political* complaint. Which is fine with me, BTW (Hey, I'm reading this forum, right?). But the Police Blotter also lists crimes against minorities or students or bicyclists, for example, and I wonder who is going to complain to the News on their behalf.

Unless a special story could have helped in some way to find suspects in the rape and assault, I don't see why it should be reported in a way more special than other crimes. (Perhaps the drawings of the suspects would be useful, but, again, they would be useful in finding suspects in crimes against minorities, too.)

It seems to me that a "human-interest" piece about the people working at the Rape Crisis Center or about officers in our police departments who specialize in sex crimes would be more useful. Heck, a story about this discussion would be more useful, because everyone here has been raising issues that would rarely be discussed in any media's news stories.

Yesterday on the State of Things, the host Frank Stacio asked his guests (journalism "experts") about the recent poll which showed that something like 75% of the public believed at least 1 of 3 things - that Hussein was linked to 9/11. that Iraq had WMD's, and I forget the other, but anyway he phrased it to ask why the readers and viewers were so stupid as to believe that when the media had reported the truth all along. What incredible spin, but an insight into that whole blame the reader, viewer, consumer, etc. - we omly give them what they want.....

I don't see why people feel the need to fall all over themselves making excuses for the Chapel Hill News. There have been many times when lesser newsworthy events that have occured on a Tuesday evening have made to the front page of Wednesday's paper. I think the final word belongs to the CHN editorial staff. Managing Editor, Sharon Campbell wrote me saying, "you, are right; we should have given the sexual assault story better play.", and yesterday evening publisher Ted Vaden left a voicemail apologizing for the oversight commenting, "we dropped the ball, and we'll do a better job next time."

Hey, at least when they screw up they OWN it.

I like the CHN--and I get the News, The N&O, AND the CH HERALD. The News does a great job with community stuff. I'm heavily involved in the theatrical productions put on at United Church of Chapel Hill to raise money for the Friederich's Ataxia Research Alliance. Though we put them on at church, they are truly community wide events--drawing participants from all over the larger community. (Durham AND Raleigh--as well as CH and Carrboro.)

The News has done large features on the two productions we have mounted to date--and both productions were WILDLY successful--Between the two events we've raised over $120,000 for research--for a genetic condition that is largely "orphaned" and underfunded. I KNOW the feature articles helped. So the News will ALWAYS have a warm spot in my heart.

Melanie

I wasn't falling all over myself to do anything, Allore. I asked the News to explain themselves, if you recall. I merely ventured a guess, based on what I'd heard from other reporters. But boy, you really made them snap to, man. They'll never screw up again, I'm sure!

Before I drop this, it occurs to me that "we screwed up" is not an explanation you should accept. It's a statement of the obvious. So what if they apologized? A newspaper's apology means nothing. No, that's not right -- it means, "We want you to shut up." Leaving it at "we screwed up" gets us nowhere. Your original post implied that the screw-up was caused by poor news judgment. That's one possibility. I offered another one while falling all over myself to defend the paper. There are probably several more possibilities. But "we screwed up" is not one of them; at least, not a satisfying one. To err is human? Perhaps, but then why complain at all when a newspaper screws up? The only thing you could get out of it would be the satisfaction of an editor personally apologizing, but that's cold comfort to victims in a case like this, and those who are potentially at risk.

I've got to believe there's a reason they screwed up, and so I don't believe the News has had the final word yet. And if you give up on pressing them for an explanation, then they've snowed you.

Mark: I've never met a public official who didn't complain about intrusive reporters. Public officials always seek greater privacy, and newspaper reporters always seek less. I'm not familiar with the divorce story, so I can't comment. (I will say that several basic texts in investigative reporting, as well as David Protess and Jim Ylisela at Northwestern, all cite the usefulness of public divorce records to the would-be investigative reporter; looking at the divorce records of public officials is a common practice.)

But you and I have talked about this, and I've heard your other examples, and I have to say that their newsworthiness is debatable and not clearly yes/no propositions. News judgment rests with the editor. Papers have their own personalities, and some are more likely to lay off then others. I'm not sorry, for instance, that the Boston Globe is more aggressive about ferreting out personal information about our president than its sister paper is. You could argue that Bush's National Guard record has direct bearing on his authority as Commander in Chief. Or you could argue that it's ancient history and, anyway, private information. Or you could argue that all's fair in politics, and everything -- medical records, the drinking habits of your daughters, your own drinking habits, past business dealings, adultery, the drug habit of your wife, the mental illness of your wife, your relationship with your gay son/daughter, your five o'clock shadow, whether or not you consult Naomi Wolf, whether the medals you threw over the wall were actually your own, what your grades were like in college, whether you look stupid in an M-1 Abrams tank, whether your brother is a drunk, whether the men in your family have unfortunate speech patterns, whether you divorced your wife while she was recovering from cancer surgery -- is potentially relevant.

That's a lost battle, unfortunately. Newspapers are in the business of selling advertisements. What we really need is a Chicago Reporter-type publication around here, one you might be able to engage on questions of newsworthiness without the corrupting influence of circulation figuring in the discussion. Otherwise, newspapers will always plead, with some circularity, that they're just giving the people what they want to read.

I should have said that the News has become feature and enterprise oriented. When the News gets scoops, it's most often because they've created the scoop through enterprise. Again, this is also something the Herald does; I'm just pointing out that it's somethinig the News can still do effectively despite its handicaps.

The Herald has consistently been better about covering court issues and to a lesser extent crime issues. As you have pointed out Duncan, the Herald has a court reporter and a Hillsborough office.

I agree with you, John, about the poor coverage in the News on those sexual assaults (actually one rape and one sexual assault, I believe). Note however the victim privacy issues can make it difficult to report on such cases. The News' deadline probably also interefered with developing a full story on it. They print the paper on Tuesday afternoons.

Duncan, i know you and I have already discussed this issue, but let me also point out that the Herald is prone to running stories that are of dubious news value and very intusive on people's personal lives. If you think the APS saga coverage was tedious in the News, you should have seen the Herald's coverage of the divorce proceedings of a Chapel Hill Town Council Member back in the early 1990's. They have a right to print it of course, but that doesn't mean it is anybody's business.

Contrast the News' award winning in-depth series on the problem of illegal employment situations involving undocumented immigrants. Great story, very roundly considered - just the kind of thing that so many of us bemoan the lack of in the media.

-Mark Chilton

The biggest part of the paper is the real estate sales section. As a sports fan the sports page (published twice a week) is useless except for high school and lower sports. Why o why the APS was covered so much is beyond me..

I guess you seconded the Herald as the local paper.

I wouldn't say "seconded," but I would say it was the more reliable source of breaking local news.

I think it's fair to say that the difference between the two papers has grown over the years as the Herald-Sun's Orange County strategy has proven a remarkable success. In the time since the Herald-Sun founded the Chapel Hill Herald, the News has been bought, redesigned, cut back the number of times it publishes every week, and has seen significant staff turnover (on a staff that isn't that big to begin with). As a result, they've become two different kinds of papers. The Herald (and the Herald-Sun, for that matter) is filled with news junkies who are at their best when tracking down breaking news; it's part of the culture and identity of the paper from the top down. Tracking down breaking news isn't wasted time for them because they publish every day. They publish features too, of course, but they're really distinguished by their ability to get news first.

The News, on the other hand, is almost always going to be scooped, if for no other reason than their publishing schedule. As a result, it seems to me that they've focused on what they _can_ still do well, and that the paper has become more feature-oriented. Thus, the "rock-paper-scissors" story, with photographs. That kind of thing is their bread and butter. (They've still got plenty of news in the paper, but it's often reported more than a day after the fact, by necessity.)

I read both papers, and I'd feel that something was missing if I didn't have both to read. (Full disclosure: I used to report for the Herald, and I've never lived in a Chapel Hill that didn't have the Herald.)

I've lived here for almost eight years, and in that time the Herald has reconfigured the newspaper situation, probably for good. I can remember when people talked about reading the Herald _or_ the News. Declaring yourself a Herald or a News reader meant something. (After I left the Herald, I was introduced to Betty Kenan as having once been a Herald-Sun reporter, and she looked at me like I'd made a mess on the rug and said, "Well, it's good you don't work there any more.")

Now you're more likely to hear people say they read the News _and_ the Herald, or just the Herald, and I think that's a dramatic change.

OK, back to work.

I think it's fair to ask why the news of the reported molestation and rape didn't receive front-page treatment and more investigation by the newspaper. Susan Broili offers a lot of detail about the case, which gets front-page treatment in today's Chapel Hill Herald, along with a composite sketch:

http://www.heraldsun.com/orange/10-445960.html

I'd be willing to bet, however, that the decision at the News didn't come down to, "What do you think? Do we cover the assaults or the rock-paper-scissors tournament? Definitely the tournament." There was room on the front page for both stories.

Although I don't know personally how it works at the News, I've noticed that they often lag behind or have less detail on stories that happen early in the week, especially on news that develops on Tuesdays. It's been explained to me that this has something to do with their publishing schedule. Maybe someone from the News would like to explain the editorial decision in this case.

Chapel Hill news should quit. The herald is a much better paper. The editor page flip flops on issues depending on who calls the editor ...(see the indy weekly article about a phone call changing the editors mind on a local issue.)

See the 2 diammetrically opposed letters on merger from the editor - does the real estate lobby have an interest in this and threaten to pull the only source of revenue?

Chapel Hill News should be acquired by the Chamber of commerce.

Or better let it be an insert in the news observer.

 

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