Paul Rilling: Tax-credit bill in The Star
Apr 04, 2013 | 3757 views |  0 comments | 12 12 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The controversial school tax credit bill was passed by the Alabama Legislature on Feb. 28. The Star was slow to cover the bill as a major story, running Associated Press stories on March 1 (Page 3A) and March 2 (2A).

Beginning with its first staff report, by Tim Lockette on March 5, The Star did a good job of covering this continuing story in March. Five front-page stories by Lockette considered the content of the new law, the views of opponents and how it might affect schools in Calhoun County. Particularly useful was “The road to school choice” (March 10, 1A). This article explained the impact of the parts of the law, which was not easy because some sections were confusing and contradictory. Included was a colorful, readable chart by AnnaMaria Jacob.

None of the stories told how area legislators voted. Names of those voting for the measure appeared in The Star only through an ad placed by the Alabama Education Association (March 24, 6B).

A related story by Lockette sought to trace funds spent by the Foundation for Accountability, a group organized by state Sen. Del Marsh of Anniston and others to build support for the new school tax credit law. The story noted that Foundation officials have refused to release names of their contributors (March 27, 1A). This was a good story, but the legal reason why the names of donors did not have to be released was not explained until the ninth paragraph. If that information had been given earlier, the story would have been easier to follow. It noted that “attempts to reach Marsh on Tuesday were unsuccessful.” It would have been fairer to hold the story another day or so to give him a chance to comment.

Star’s community role

This year, The Star did not name a person as “Citizen of the Year,” but instead named representatives of four organizations. The groups were recognized for their work in mobilizing the people of Anniston to become active in seeking constructive change in the city’s leadership. People were polled; people were encouraged to organize and speak up; candidate forums were held across the city.

There are such forums in all local elections; this time they were better organized and publicized and they drew larger, more involved audiences. The recognition was deserved. Civic involvement is not easy to stimulate. It takes planning and hard work. The Star’s coverage of the awards, by Daniel Gaddy, could have provided more information about the groups being honored (March 22, 1A).

The disturbing thing about the awards for this observer was the self-interest shown by Star officials. Star Publisher H. Brant Ayers was quoted as saying, “Our coverage of the past City Council culminating in a Sunday front-page editorial call to action began a narrative that resulted in citizens acting to improve city government.” In his column, Star Associate Publisher and Editor Bob Davis wrote: “The Star dedicated a front-page editorial in August 2010 calling on ‘residents to come together…..’ The aforementioned groups rose to the newspaper’s call…” (March 24, 3D). It almost seemed as if The Star was honoring itself.

Certainly The Star did provide coverage of City Council meetings and actions. These reports may have helped shape public perceptions. But the newspaper was doing its job. If the reporting was done fairly, as it generally was, it was meant to inform, not to takes sides. The paper’s editorials do take sides, and there was that August 2010 editorial. It was a good, strong editorial, but it is presumptuous and ungracious for The Star to assume credit for causing all the civic activity in the election. A newspaper is an important institution with some influence over local activities, but it is just one of a number of factors contributing to community opinion and action.

Covering the storm

“Fast and furious,” a total news staff effort, did a good job of covering the devastating windstorm that swept through this section of Alabama on March 18. There was just one photo, a good one by Trent Penny on the front page. More printed pictures would have helped; they were available on The Star’s website. Two paragraphs in the story on Page 8A were printed twice. The story failed to pin down the time frame of the storm. The lead paragraph seemed to say the storm was “late this afternoon,” meaning Tuesday. Monday was not mentioned until the fourth paragraph; the story did not say when the storm hit and how long it lasted (March 19, 1A).

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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