Paul Rilling: Judging Star’s coverage of Ben Little
Jun 29, 2012 | 2700 views |  0 comments | 6 6 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The Anniston Star has a problem covering Anniston City Councilman Ben Little. It’s understandable. There is the usual tension between the media and elected officials and the past legal conflict between Little and The Star over Little’s libel suit. There is the councilman’s confrontational style. And another factor is that, like most media, The Star doesn’t do too well covering itself.

On June 15, a story by Cameron Steele reported that Little had paid a portion of the court costs he was ordered to pay when he lost his libel suit against the newspaper (Page 5A). It is questionable whether the story needed to be published at all. If it was newsworthy, it could have simply noted the fact of the repayment and Little’s answer about other payments. The tiff between Little and Star Editor Bob Davis over The Star’s motive in running the story added nothing to the news. The statement that The Star did not plan to ask the court to garnish Little’s pay as councilman was self-serving. That issue had not been publicly raised except here.

The June 20 Star reported a press conference that Little convened. The story, by Steele, ran on the front page with a large color photo. The Star was right to report the event, but the amount of news in the story would have been appropriate for an inside story about half as long. Mostly it was old news. Little repeated his claim that the city should pay him and his church $2 million for damage to his reputation caused by his 2011 arrest for alleged failure to maintain properties owned by his church. The claim was first made in April.

Good community journalism

As a primary local institution, a community newspaper strives to help the community improve. The Star’s “Our Big Problem” campaign to encourage dialogue about obesity is in the best tradition of community journalism. There was a focus-group discussion held at The Star offices, with a story by Tim Lockette (June 17, 1A). On June 21, The Star hosted a showing of an HBO documentary on the problem and a wide-ranging community discussion, by Steele (June 22, 1A). The front-page notice of the event in The Star that morning gave the time and place, but no date.

Don’t separate lists

The “Hats in the Ring” chart about candidates for Anniston mayor and council was useful to readers, but the separation of the list between pages six and 11 was unfortunate. Incumbents and challengers for the offices were separated, making quick comparisons difficult (June 6, 6A and 11A).

Story had problems

A June story, “Depot tenant welcomes new commander,” was poorly organized. The story, by Ana Rodriguez, ignored the normal rule that the first, or “lead,” paragraph of a news story tells the most important news in the story. In this case the story followed the event chronologically. The first thing that happened was the officer presiding told a joke. So the story opened with three paragraphs about the joke. Readers didn’t learn what “DLA Distribution” meant until the fourth paragraph. The story never did explain how the Defense Logistics Agency fits in with the Anniston Army Depot (June 14, 1A).

Selecting lead stories

The story on the top right of Page 1 of a newspaper is considered the item “leading” the page. It is usually the most important or interesting story in the day’s edition. On June 7, the lead story on the front page of The Star was the death of the writer Ray Bradbury. The story was newsworthy, but it was hardly the most important news story that day.

Public-service pages

The Public Library of Anniston-Calhoun County became the third agency to benefit from The Star’s donation of “public service” pages to help the agency promote its program. The others are the Calhoun County Chamber of Commerce, which uses two pages a week, and the two Anniston museums, which use two pages a month. A total of 12 such pages were published in June. The Star did sell ads on these pages.

Some Star Brights in June:

• Two attractive special sections showing all-star players in Calhoun County boys’ baseball and girls’ softball teams, edited by Lacie Pinyan (June 15, sections B and D).

• Healthy Living, a 24-page special tabloid section about weight, also biking, swimming and other healthy activities, edited by Lisa Davis (dated summer, 2012).

• “Courts and Rehabilitation,” a solid investigative report on rehabilitation facilities, how judges assign persons to the facilities, and the gray area in the law requiring certification of facilities by the Departments of Mental Health, by Steele (June 10, 1A).

• “The mighty has fallen,” a nice feature about the demise of an aged, great tree, by Laura Johnson (June 16, 1A).

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor of The Star.
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