Monthly Archives: April 2007

County Commission lawsuit update

A number of folks have asked the status of the News Sentinel’s open-meetings lawsuit against the County Commission. It has been a while since there has been any action to report. But behind the scenes, the wheels of justice have continued to grind.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time responding to interrogatories from the county law director. The questions ask, in effect, why I think the Sunshine Law was violated. Working with my colleagues in the newsroom, we’ve assembled a detailed timeline of our conversations with and observations of the commissioners before, during and after the Jan. 31 meeting that we think indicate multiple violations of the law. The document will have to be filed with the court by May 2, and I hope to be able to post it on this site at that time.
The commissioners, meanwhile, have been preparing their own responses to our interrogatories, which are due to be filed April 30. I’m looking forward to seeing them.
The week of May 21 has been set aside for taking depositions from the commissioners.
Complicating matters is the parallel suit by attorney Herb Moncier. Moncier’s clients also allege violations of the Open Meetings Act, but they are suing on several other grounds as well. Moncier’s suit is up for a motions hearing in mid-May. It’s possible those other issues will be stripped away at that point, leaving the Sunshine Law as the only remaining issue in that case. If that were to occur, it’s also possible our suits might be consolidated and we would find ourselves at trial July 11, the date that has been set for the Moncier case to be presented to a jury.

Shooting headline missed the mark

We blew it, as this and many other callers and letter writers noted:
“I just saw the headlines in the Tuesday (4/17} morning edition and I would like to say that is one of the worst headers I’ve seen in a long time. You should be ashamed!! Sensationalism, knee jerk, over hyped—- add your own description. You nor anyone else is in a postion to know what has transpired at Va. Tech at this point. Even if the headline is correct, it is much too early to make such stupid statements. If you can’t think of anything better to say, run a blank front page in acknowledgement of what happened. You have descended to the level of Imus, Springer, N.Grace, etc.!”
Today’s six-column headline said, “‘Blood on their hands,'” with a deck headline asking: “Did Va. Tech officials do enough?” It did strike the wrong tone, and it was an example of how good intentions can go awry.
Like the rest of the nation, we in the newsroom watched with horror yesterday as the terrible situation at Virginia Tech unfolded. For me, the comparisons to what happened at Columbine High School were unavoidable. I was in Denver at the time, and covering that tragedy was one of the most difficult and formative experiences of my career.
As we planned our coverage yesterday, we added two pages to the main section of the paper to allow for more depth. At the 4 p.m. news meeting much of the discussion focused on the fact the story would be 24 hours old by the time the News Sentinel was delivered Tuesday morning. The newspaper’s story, we knew, could not and should not simply recite what occurred as if we were delivering fresh news. Instead, we knew we would have to examine new angles. Likewise, a straight headline reporting the massacre would seem quite dated, and the suggestion was made to look for a quote that might serve as a headline, advancing the story and reflecting its emotional impact.
Of course, the tough job fell to the folks who work so hard at night actually putting the paper out. A story questioning whether authorities acted appropriately was selected to lead Page 1, along with a story about East Tennesseeans at Virginia Tech. I felt the story selection was fine. There were many questions emerging about whether the tragedy could have been prevented or minimized, and that issue will continue to be raised. But when a quote was drawn from the story, the one that was selected proved to be too vivid, accusatory and harsh in tone. It’s understandable that a distraught 18-year-old might say university officials had “blood on their hands.” But those words weren’t a good choice to elevate to 72-point bold type the day after such a tragedy.

Photographing grief at military funerals

I wrote the following column for Sunday’s paper and would be interested in reaction. Dealing with grieving families is one of the tougher things we do in the newspaper business. It can seem rude to intrude on a family in mourning. But it’s not safe to assume that reporters and photographers are unwelcome. Quite often the opposite is true.
I remember a time in Albuquerque when a young woman was killed in a balloon crash (a not uncommon occurrence in the “balloon capital of the world”). I called the family and was harshly chewed out by a man who answered the phone. I apologized and hung up. A few minutes later, the young woman’s mother called me back. She desperately wanted to talk about her daughter and to let the community know how keenly her loss was felt. The man speaking for her simply had assumed otherwise.
One of the newspaper’s roles is to give proper acknowledgement to citizens, to show that they are, or were, valued members of a community. We believe it’s important to honor local soldiers who have given their lives, and we do so by giving their funerals front-page, centerpiece treatment, complete, when possible, with photos that speak volumes about their loss.
Sunday’s column:
In November 1963, America was torn by grief. A war hero and commander-in-chief had fallen.
One wrenching scene, in particular, became lodged in our nation’s memory. As his father’s casket passed, 3-year-old John John Kennedy — standing by his uncles, mother and sister — saluted.
The image drove home the human dimension of the loss. But the photograph also was an intrusive close-up of a grieving family.
Shooting such photos can be touchy.
Two weeks ago, the News Sentinel published a front-page picture of Amy Prater on a boat on Norris Lake, where she scattered the ashes of her husband, Staff Sgt. Terry Prater, who had been killed in Iraq.
I felt the image brought home to readers the supreme sacrifice Prater and his loved ones had made. But, after the picture appeared, the newspaper received an angry protest from a group called the Patriot Guard Riders.
The PGR originated in 2005 with motorcyclists in Kansas who wanted to protect military funerals from an anti-gay group that had begun picketing processions.
Since then, the PGR has grown dramatically. Duane Romine, a ride captain from Roane County, said the group now has 80,000 members across the United States. Its mission has broadened, too, to include dealing with the media on behalf of military families.
The News Sentinel has covered military funerals for decades, typically working directly with families or with funeral directors to assure that our presence was not unwanted or disruptive.
Our veteran staff has produced many photographs that conveyed the enormous sacrifice of soldiers. Always we tried to do so with respect for the dignity of the families and the funerals.
But the Patriot Guard Riders add a new factor to the equation, and that has caused some consternation.
Matters came to a head with the Prater funeral.
We understood the family to have requested no close-up photos, but the Patriot Guard said the family wanted no photos at all.
I apologize to the Prater family if we misunderstood. We certainly want to adhere to the wishes of families who have suffered such great loss. And, if a family wants the Patriot Guard to represent its interests, we respect that, too.
But it is difficult for us to judge the legitimacy of anyone who says he or she is representing a grieving family. We also are concerned that a group such as the PGR might not be able to explain effectively why it may be valuable for the community to bear witness to a family’s mourning.
Photographs, we believe, are a way for the public to share in the grief and to understand more fully what sacrifices are being made on behalf of us all.
We don’t want to intrude unwelcome on a grieving family’s privacy.
But we also don’t want to disrespect these soldiers by averting our gaze from the anguish of their loss.

Newspapers move into videography

I spent last week at the American Society of Newspaper Editors convention in Washington, D.C. I expected a doom-and-gloom atmosphere, but found quite the opposite. The editors I talked to and the sessions I attended were focused on the future of journalism, not the current transition pains our industry is suffering.
There were a number of interesting sessions, but one of the most exciting to me was a workshop on videography. It had occurred to me a while ago that technology soon would produce a digital video camera capable of capturing still images with resolutions good to use in print. As I walked into this workshop, a Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer, David Leeson, was holding up a video camera and declaring that it was the future of our business.
The technology was already in hand.
The Dallas Morning News today is using a Sony HD video camera to shoot both still and video, and the quality of both are excellent. The San Jose Mercury News and other papers are doing likewise. The equipment opens the door to a major evolution for newspapers.
If the News Sentinel’s photographers were all using these cameras, our staff of videographers would be comparable to that of the local TV stations. A new world of competition, as well as storytelling, lies ahead.
Is a print photographer likely to be a good videographer? Judge for yourself this video that Leeson shot after Hurricane Katrina. I can’t wait to see what the News Sentinel’s fine shooters can come up with.