Friday, January 11, 2008

Shoddy Journalism Creates Hysteria Where None Exists

Why is the Asheville Citizen Times deleting comment threads, changing timelines, and fishing for negative reactions to the alledged shooting incident at Asheville high school?

* edit: the AC-T does not delete comment threads; this action would be taken by the Topix team due to flagged comments.

from the AC-T forums:

"I was wondering how long it would take the "journalists" at the Citizen-Times to set up the Asheville High staff and administration for a public flogging. It looks like the answer is: 2 days.

At the end of yesterday's article about the arrest of the shooting suspect, the C-T added a line soliciting comments from the public. Then today there's an article that makes it seem like concerned parents and students are spontaneously contacting the paper to voice their concerns.

In today's "expose" of the "cover-up," one parent is quoted as questioning whether or not to send her child "back into the line of fire." I don't blame Sharon Burton for that quote, because even if she did say it, the only reason the C-T used it was that it is provocative enough for them to maybe squeeze a couple more days out of this story.

When you look at the 2-page spread on pages A4 and A5, you find an authoritative "Timeline of Shooting at Asheville High School." After asking the insinuating question "Who knew what when?", the "timeline" states authoritatively that two to four shots were fired at "about 3:35 PM."

Anyone who has ever been on Asheville High's campus knows that it is absolutely not possible for only five people to witness any shots fired at that time. That area is one of the most heavily trafficked areas on campus, and 3:35 is the busiest time of the day for foot traffic there. But hey--the paper says that's when "two to four shots were fired," so they must know more than the thirty or forty students who were there, and the teachers who were in the library, the cafeteria, and the arts building, at the time.

Then there's the line that "the shooting went unreported to school administrators until one staff member overheard a student talking about it." How is that an indictment of the administration's handling of the situation? If anything, it confirms the premise that no adults heard or witnessed the event--which is further evidence that the "shooting" either happened after the cafeteria area was cleared, or that shots were not actually fired.

But hey--that's a complicated story line that doesn't have nearly the drama that a pandering rag like the Citizen-Times requires. Who's going to follow a story for three or four days if there's no drama, and no nefarious motive?

A month or so ago, many of us at Asheville High felt a lot of sympathy for Erwin High when the Citizen-Times ran a big front-page headline calling Erwin a "dropout factory." It was grossly unfair, and failed to take into consideration all kinds of subtle but important factors that don't sell newspapers.

Who knew that only a month or two later, we would get "Erwined" by the Citizen-Times?

One can only hope that there will be some sex scandal or some other tawdry and trivial bit of lasciviousness that will drive this story off the front page. That's probably what it will take. Journalistic integrity isn't gonna do it."

Amen, brother...


funkymono (aka Jeremy) said...

I've not been keeping up with this story, but I did find it odd when the original story mentioned that administrators didn't find out about the shooting until 30 minutes after it happened. If shots were fired, you'd really think someone would've heard. That's not a slam on the school administrators; instead, it makes you wonder if shots really were fired.

Adam said...

The mind boggles at the fact that anyone would read a 'reputable' newspaper that has misspelled words and bad grammar on the front page! Can the AC-T really not afford some real editors? Or are they just too busy trying to dig up hearsay and false reports? The only thing that paper is good for is picking up dog shit from the sidewalk.

mygothlaundry said...

The comments at the Citizen-Times are uniformly horrific. Every time I read them I regret it and then I start to think that it would probably be a good idea to move to a small cozy cave in Tibet, because the lunatics are running the damn asylum. If the paper is moving to stricter comment moderation I can only applaud it, although then you'd think some of the incoherent rants on that story would have been pulled. Eeesh.

As an Asheville High parent, I can only say, Meh, anyway. Most of the kids were gone that day by then due to exams; my son didn't hear a thing about gunfire; we got the usual four phone calls and two emails about the incident - which always seems kind of like overkill - and everybody is okay and probably there never really was a gun in the first place. I feel sorry for the 16 year old they've chased to Knoxville and hope he gets help and not just thrown into a cell to languish for the rest of his life.

ash said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
ash said...

A potential shooting on a school campus is a serious matter. To call it "pandering" demeans the importance of keeping students safe.

Was there a shooting? The key can be found in this paragraph in the story:

"Asheville police Capt. Tim Splain said police arrived at the school about 5 p.m. Several witnesses and the intended victim all stated verbally and in writing that a handgun was fired."

Nobody's trying to "flog" school administrators. The newspaper is just trying to get to the bottom of the incident.

Questioning authority is the job of a journalist. If that makes authorities uncomfortable, then all the better.

Gordon Smith said...

I think the point, Ash, is that it's unclear whether shots were fired or not, and it's not responsible to report they were if they weren't.

Gordon Smith said...

Is there no link to the comment thread?

Gordon Smith said...

Sorry, one more here. I just read the article at the AC-T website, and it reads like (1) Asheville High School was trying to hide something; (2) in the second section, after running accusations and fearful sentiments in the first, the story introduces the possibility that there weren't any shots fired, followed by an assertion that they were; (3) What IS the explanation for no one having heard gunshots? This seems like an essential element that's missing.

And then in the "Student reaction" and subsequent section, we hear from folks who feel that things are pretty safe.

It's a muddy story that probably shouldn't have run until the facts were clear. To print accusations of AHS officials trying to hide something and make kids less safe looks irresponsible on the part of the paper.

What IS the story here anyway? Is it that AHS officials made kids less safe by not reporting that shooting occurred even though "uniformed APD officers" said at 5pm that there wasn't any evidence of that? Is it that there was a shooting? Was there a shooting? How did no one hear the shots? Is Asheville High School "safe"?

I'm not sure what the story here is, but it certainly looks like discretion would have been the better part of valor.

ash said...

Gordon, I'll refer you, again, to the pertinent graf:

"Asheville police Capt. Tim Splain said police arrived at the school about 5 p.m. Several witnesses and the intended victim all stated verbally and in writing that a handgun was fired."

Police say there was a shooting. They've arrested a suspect and charged him with shooting on a school campus.

If the newspaper doesn't write a story, its reporters and editors get accused of a cover-up. The daily newspaper uses discretion, and does the best it can to answer the questions posed.

Edgy Mama said...

So were there shots fired or not? No one seems to know for sure, which the newspaper reported. The fact that a weapon was brandished is news and should be reported. Immediately. Not all news is good news.

Gordon Smith said...

"Questioning authority is the job of a journalist."

I was thinking that reporting the truth was the job of a journalist. If that truth requires questioning authority, then your assertion is certainly true. But to question the school's intention without a uniform set of facts to draw from seems like questioning authority gratuitously. And when the "authority" is a High School, it's hard to see it as inherently virtuous.

I think that questioning the holes in the story might be the first priority. What about those in the vicinity who saw and heard nothing? Are they less credible? Why? What. Are. The. Facts?

I'm just saying that truth of this incident is unclear in the article, and the school really gets a raw deal.

Gordon Smith said...

Is it true that the AC-T pulled down two different comment threads on this story? Why?

I didn't know AC-T was taking responsibility for its comment threads...

Also, I'm aware that the journalists' "timeline" changed as more facts kept coming in. What's the standard journalistic ethic for reporting stories when the facts are unclear? I understand the whole "correction" concept, but is it considered best practice to do what the AC-T did?

I honestly don't know that editorial standard or the journalistic ethic at work here, but I hate to see our only daily newspaper attack a school without having all the facts in themselves.

Bill In Asheville said...

Police arrived at 5pm and there were students there?

Randall said...

A couple of things come to mind here.

A lot of kids, most maybe, have cell phones. None of them called 911?

The police didn't arrive till five? Why not?

The gun had a silencer?

Just asking.

ash said...

Gordon, i think the authorities here are school officials, not just the high school.

The newspaper did question the holes in what people were saying. It reported the situation from a number of points of view and stated what was unclear.

In the end, police have witnesses that told them, and wrote down and presumably signed, that shots were fired on campus.

I agree with you, G-man, that reporting truth is job #1. When the facts are unclear, the job is to do everything possible to get as far as you can, then go with the story. The journalist ethic is "get the story." A reporter rarely has "all the facts" when deadline arrives.

And as you note, situations are fluid. So a reporter goes with what she knows after reporting as thoroughly as possible for that day. (In this case, there were three reporters working the story.) There are follow-up stories. There can be corrections.

In terms of the comment threads being pulled down, I honestly don't know the answer to your question. But here's how it works, as you probably know:

The comment threads are hosted through Topix, so they're not actually on the Citizen-Times' site. People can essentially comment anonymously, but agree to "terms of service" rules that expressly forbid the bad board behavior so many people complain about.

Anybody can flag a comment, which calls it to the attention of the Topix folks. It is then their job to remove the comment if it violates their terms of service.

So I encourage you to flag any and all comments that you feel violate Topix' terms of service.

Gordon Smith said...

The Editorial Board has taken a sober, fair look at this here: