Paul Rilling: A story overplayed in The Star
May 09, 2013 | 5859 views |  0 comments | 9 9 recommendations | email to a friend | print
One of the toughest decisions the news media face is how to handle unsupported charges against a public figure. If you publish the charges you are helping to spread them. If you don’t you may be ignoring a story the public has a right to know.

The Star faced this dilemma in April when it learned that some organization had mass-mailed a lurid flyer to Calhoun County residents accusing state Sen. Del Marsh of seeking and receiving questionable campaign contributions. Not only were the charges unsubstantiated, they were anonymous from an organization that nobody ever heard of and nobody can find.

The Star could have published nothing about the mailing. It could have carried a short story inside the paper. Instead, it treated the mailing as serious news, carrying the story at the top of the front page (April 9, 1A). In my opinion, The Star made the wrong choice. At best the incident merited brief mention, not the major attention it received.

I asked Star Managing Editor Ben Cunningham about the treatment of the story. He said, by email, “Coverage of political ads and the money spent on them helps voters to know who’s trying to sway their opinions. When the sources of such spending are concealed, and especially when the ads’ claims are questionable, we think it’s important to lets readers know. (The) story focused far more on the murky source of the ad than on its content. Yes, covering political ads does risk giving the advertisers free exposure. In this case, because the next election cycle is more than a year away, we saw little risk of the ad directly influencing voters through our story.”

Given The Star’s news judgment, the story, by Tim Lockette, was a strong reporting effort. It examined the law concerning the reporting of such political spending; it reflected considerable effort to run down the group responsible and explored the charges made in the flyer. However, the story provided little information about who was behind the flyers.

Strong pedaling

The Star gave solid, if not outstanding, coverage to the Sunny King Criterium and the annual bicycle races that are part of what the city’s leadership hopes will be the image of the “Bike City of Alabama.” The sports section featured stories on the men’s and women’s professional races by Joe Medley. There were three good action photos by Trent Penny. The story on the men’s race, “United they stand,” discussed the teams of racers competing. The most exciting part of the race, a sprint at the finish decided by a half-bike margin, was not mentioned until the 20th paragraph of the story.

The full results of the races were printed, but there was no explanation of the various categories of races. What are “cat 3,” “cat 4,” and so on? Were none of these races worth some coverage or photos? (April 21, C section).

Another article, “Bike City, Alabama?”, took a different approach to Anniston’s bicycle emphasis. By Lockette, this story suggested that in a real Bike City, there are bike lanes and large numbers of residents are biking to work and recreational activities. This story should have been labeled “analysis.” An analysis doesn’t just report what is happening. It looks at a situation and considers the meaning of what is happening (April 14, 1A).

Apples and oranges

One of the more questionable types of assessments are composite scores or ratings of communities, states or whatever based on data from a variety of things with unclear methods of weighting them to reach specific scores or rankings. They contain real data and look scientific, but they mix apples, oranges and hamburgers in ways that can be highly subjective.

One such survey reported by The Star in April was “Local cities rank low on group’s business–friendly list,” by Daniel Gaddy. The survey of 50 Alabama cities gave low scores to four east Alabama cities: Anniston, Oxford, Talladega and Gadsden. What cities were ranked highest? They story didn’t say. The survey was by the Alabama Policy Institute, a conservative think tank in Birmingham. The Star should identify the political leanings of groups it cites. Useful information can come from right- or left-leaning groups, but readers are entitled to know where they are coming from (April 6, 1A).

What’s your name?

The Star seems to have some difficulty in naming persons in pictures. A sports story, “Rivalry renewed,” about a baseball game between Alexandria and Jacksonville high schools, featured three fine action photos by Penny. Not one of the players was identified (April 24, 1B).

On April 6, the Community section front carried a photo of nine leaders of “charitable organizations.” Although all nine faces were clearly shown, only four were named. Another Community section front carried a clear picture of members of the Faith Christian School mathematics team on April 27. The 20 students were shown, names were given, but there was no matching of names with pictures.

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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