Paul Rilling: The debate over Star's reporting
May 01, 2009 | 1387 views |  0 comments | 14 14 recommendations | email to a friend | print
According to The Star's report of Tuesday's Anniston City Council meeting, City Attorney Cleo Thomas said that "reports of conflict are greatly exaggerated." He was quoted as saying to the council, "Your press has been worse that it should have been." Is Thomas right? Or is this another case of the media being blamed for reporting unwelcome news?

There were three front-page stories about the Anniston City Council in The Star in April, by Megan Nichols and Mike Faulk. As well as anyone can judge who did not attend the meetings, they appear to be based on solid, accurate reporting. The news staff did its job. Council members have not claimed they were misquoted. Some council members seem to agree that they have a conflict problem, given the remarks that have been exchanged and the suit filed by one council member against the mayor for his comments.

The editorial pages are another matter. The Star's editorial board believes that conflict on the council is a serious obstacle to effective government and has a clear opinion about which council members are primarily responsible for the problem. The board's views were expressed in four editorials and a column this month. Offering opinions on public issues is the job of the editorial board.

Labeling of series

The purpose of a series is to probe a subject in more depth than is possible in a single article. Readers are told how many stories will be included in the series, and the stories are run on successive days so readers can keep track. My February column said The Star seemed to have no consistent policy on labeling series.

In March, I welcomed a clearer system of presenting series, including a three-part series on Oxford's Commercial Development Authority. Two weeks after that series was published, another story on the Oxford CDA appeared, with the series logo, numbered Part 4. (April 13, 1A). The third story gave no hint of another one to come. It just appeared.

A number of related stories appearing on a random basis is not a series. It defeats the purpose of a series identification.

Understanding complexity

One of the major goals of the news media is to make complexity understandable, to explain involved, technical issues in simple language. There were at least three stories of this kind in April.

One was about a local bill in the state Legislature to establish the McClellan Development Authority as a legal entity (April 24, 1A). By John Fleming, the story explained objections by the state trial lawyers, and the importance of the changed language they required for the legislation to pass. The issues were clearly explained.

A story about increases in tuition at Jacksonville State University, by Michael A. Bell, dealt with a similar problem: how to make all those figures meaningful (April 14, 1A). The use of such terms as "last year" and "this year" were not too clear. Data was provided that showed tuition will have increased 21.97 percent from "last year" to next year, although the reader had to do the math on his or her own. The increases for each year were given in different parts of the story. In the 15th paragraph, unnamed "school officials" were quoted as saying, "… the cost of the transportation system is the main reason for the tuition increase." The cost of the system was given as "about $800,000 a year." But the story did not say how much money the latest tuition increase will generate.

The third story explained the impact of the nationwide recession on local community and regional banks (April 26, 1A).

The 60-inch article, by Nick Cenegy, included interesting data on area banks, but it was difficult to follow. The comparison of quarterly and annual data was confusing, and the story was longer than necessary. It was stated that "economists and bankers" see "a much more optimistic story for Calhoun County and the region at large than the rest of the nation." This conclusion was not supported by the statements quoted.

Stars in this month's Star:

• "Man dies in 5-car crash on I-20," by Graham Milldrum (April 28, 1A), was a breaking news story well covered. Despite deadline pressures, the story included the complex details of the multiple accidents and the names and hometowns of the many victims.

• A biting satire about personalities in Anniston's city government, column by Phillip Tutor (April 3, 7A).

• "Rebirth, grace, resurrection," a moving look back at the 1994 Goshen tornado and how it changed lives, by Laura Tutor (April 12, 1A).

• "Keeping watch," a gripping, first-hand report about the pirate attack on the Maersk Alabama, from a Piedmont man serving on the USS Bainbridge, by Nick Cenegy (April 19, 1A).
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