BY WILLIAM H. FREIVOGEL / The “Jailed by Mistake” project published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch this past fall had all of the earmarks of enterprising journalism in the public interest. By the time the project went to press Oct. 27, the Post-Dispatch reported that 100 people had been arrested in error over the past seven years and had spent a collective 2,000 days in jail. But in the months since publication, a former Post-Dispatch editorial writer who went to work for St. Louis Mayor Francis Slay meticulously documented what he thinks were mistakes in the series about mistakes. The top Slay administration official, Eddie Roth, has gone about it in an unorthodox way: He has published a series of criticisms on his Facebook page that have run even longer than the original series.
Issues from the LGBT community permeated news cycles during the month of February. Missouri defensive end Michael Sam came out and is set to become the first openly gay player to play in the NFL. Media overwhelmingly supported Sam. The Texas Supreme Court struck down Texas’ gay marriage law – and, on the same day, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer vetoed a law that would have allowed business owners and others protection should they be sued over refusing service because of religious reasons.
They struck in the early evening hours of Feb. 16, spray-painting “F*** the 1%” several times and “Kill People” once on walls of houses, garage doors, fences and a car in Atherton, Calif. On Feb. 25 the CBS television outlet in San Francisco (KPIX) and CNBC reported their “threatening” and “offensive” graffiti, and CNBC coined the term “anti-wealth phrases” to capture the heinous nature of the threat the graffiti posed. On the following day, a story in the San Jose Mercury News followed with a less-agitated account of what had occurred and who might be responsible. None of the stories confronted the key issue raised by the response to this act of vandalism. While no one questioned that personal property was defaced and destroyed, and that therefore felonies were likely committed, the real question of whether or not the FBI should have been involved in the investigation of the spray-painting was not explored by the media.
I fell in love with the Alton Telegraph newsroom. Who wouldn’t, with its dangling cables, stacks of yellowing newsprint, reference books – that’s right, BOOKS – on cabinets with wheels and reporters’ desks adorned with the bric-a-brac from years of school-board meetings, election nights and city council debates?
A bridge! A bridge! Abridged? The recent opening of a new bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis got grand coverage from the city’s television news stations. Footage of the sparkling span dominated morning reports by Fox News Channel 2, KMOV Channel 4 and KSDK Channel 5 on the Friday before the official opening on Feb. 9. Cheerleading, in fact, was in top form as anchors and reporters gave testimony to an engineering achievement accomplished with admirable efficiency. It was a good story about civic progress. But the journalists’ day job – reporting – was noticeably, ah, abridged.
One year ago, Rem Rieder in USA TODAY wrote about ombudsmen, the individuals (often called “readers’ representatives” or “public editors”) employed by newspapers to keep a vigilant eye on the paper’s journalism and report the findings to readers. Rieder painted a discouraging picture, noting that just half as many ombudsmen were working in U.S. news organizations as was the case a decade ago – and that more than a dozen media organizations axed the position following the 2008 recession. This, Rieder reported, even though a handful of new ombudsmen positions were being created in newsrooms in other nations.
When Wolcott Gibbs parodied TIME magazine’s famous style (“TIMEstyle” or “TIMEspeak”) in the New Yorker in 1936, he penned the now-famous line: “Backward ran the sentences until reeled the mind.” But TIME was much more than a collection of inverted sentences, cheeky puns (“Esther Williams’ pictures are so much water over the dame”) and double-jointed adjectives. TIME was America’s first and best news weekly, read by more than 20 million worldwide, and it may well have “invented mass media.”
It promised to be a lulu of a story: “The Tyranny and Lethargy of the Times Editorial Page,” in the New York Observer on Feb. 4 by the paper’s editor, Ken Kurson. The subhead hinted at the juiciness of it all: “Reporters in ‘semi-open revolt’ against Andrew Rosenthal.” Rosenthal, the New York Times’ editorial page editor, gets skewered by more than two dozen current and former Times staffers, as do his assistants who write the paper’s editorials, the columnists on the op-ed page, and the “Sunday Review” he’s in charge of. The attack, from all but two named sources among the Times staffers interviewed, proceeded on four fronts.
When Ryan Ferguson was released from prison Nov. 12 where he had been serving time for the murder of a newspaper sports editor, television journalists from across the country swooped down on Columbia, Mo., home of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. The big story provided a teaching moment for one professor, concerned about accuracy, media ethics and the appearance of objectivity. A lesson was to be learned, too, about convergence, and how an event can be transformed or amplified by the various forms of media buzzing around it.
This winter, the most-talked-about local news is the weather. It seems like every few days we have another storm of some type. This puts extra pressure on the local television stations who know that people are tuning in to see what it is going to do – and when.
Soon after tragedy struck a sleepy New England town more than one year ago, residents of Newtown, Ct., vowed the place they called home would be an epicenter for change. There needed to be changes in gun laws, some cried out. Others advocated for a national movement to increase school security. A need for better mental health counseling became a topic of conversation in homes and coffee shops among the town’s 26,000 residents. More subtle and in the undertones, there also were pleas for Newtown to be the epicenter of change in how stories of mass shootings and grief are covered.