Sunday, January 22, 2012

Story involving deaths, without full IDs

A reader complains about a 01-22-12 story reporting a town of Poughkeepsie fire in which three Marist College students died, but not identifying the deceased.

court wrote on Jan 21, 2012 10:57 PM:
" I find it so irresponsible to say two females perished in a fire, gave the address and the school they attended but didn't release their names, for the sake of the families. SHAME ON YOU! "

It's a valid point to raise. But consider the alternatives available to media outlets. 
A fatal fire has occurred early Saturday morning. By late Saturday, the deceased still hadn't been identified by authorities. Likely the existence of a fire was reported by some outlets even as units responded.  In any event, news of the fire had to have spread throughout the region and the Marist College campus. Word of mouth on fatalities spreads quickly, if inaccurately. 
Under these circumstances, anything short of as precise an identification as possible would only exacerbate the issue of stress for families. That is, report only that there was a fire with fatalities somewhere in the town of Poughkeepsie and everyone in the region with connections to people in Poughkeepsie are put on edge. Report there was a fire with fatalities on Fairview Avenue, but not that they were students or the exact location, and everyone with loved ones on Fairview Avenue is panicked.
I view this as a case in which everyone involved was trying to do their jobs as responsibly as possible. Tracking down the parents of college students is a tough job for authorities and they withheld identifications out of their concern. News outlets reported the known details of the tragedy as best they could, even as word of the event doubtless was spreading widely by word of mouth, but perhaps without grounding in facts.
It's a no-win situation for all involved.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

What 'Law & Disorder' is and isn't

A reader railed Thursday against the Freeman’s publication of the "Law & Disorder" compendium of some of the arrests reported by area police agencies:

AVK on 01/05/2012 01:22:13 said:
"For those of us reading these reports, we have a moral responsibility to remember that the information herein constitutes allegations only, unqualified reports and hearsay at best.

Each day this page publishes inaccuracies: inaccuracies that go uncorrected; inaccuracies that shape our actions and judgment in ways that can damage other people’s lives.

If we as readers make the mistake of believing these allegations and accepting them as truth, we are not only making a moral (and possibly legal) error, but we are proving ourselves no better than our forbearers who showed up at the town square to gawk at a public lynching.

So, please pause for a moment:: if the Daily Freeman can do this to others, don’t you think they could do it to you or to me? To your spouse? Your children. Someone you love?

Chances are that there is someone in YOUR life who, through circumstances or chance, will encounter the fringes of our legal system. The fringes! Not a judge. Not a jury. Just the fringes--usually in the form of a law officer, a tax clerk, or some local official. But, these encounters mean nothing. “Where there is smoke, there is fire” is not the basis for of our legal system. And, we all have an ethical responsibility to make sure that it is NOT the basis for determining our behavior toward our fellow man, be it a friend, a colleague, or a perfect stranger.

As for the Daily Freeman, publishers may have the “right” to print these inaccuracies because, after all, it is their publication, and the First Amendment protects their right to do with it as they please.

We as citizens, however, have the right to vote. And, voting today is not just a matter of voting with our wallets. The internet and social media has opened up a new age of hyper-sharing. Social media just toppled an irresponsible government in Egypt. It can topple an irresponsible newspaper in Hudson Valley just as easily. So, speak out where ever and when ever you can. Facebook and Twitter are good places to start.

We as readers should demand more. From the Daily Freeman, we need to demand accuracy and accountability. And, from ourselves we need to demand nothing less than a clean and humble conscience in how we deal with and support our fellow citizens who find themselves caught in the crosshares of this paper’s irresponsible behavior.

My love to one who was needlessly hurt by one of these reports." 

Where to start?

To me, the Law & Disorder column is an interesting finger on the pulse of our community. It is our single most popular feature, as the metrics of readership on our website report. And it is what it is – a compendium of arrests and charges made in our readership area and reported by police and other law enforcement agencies. It is no more and no less.

I couldn’t agree more that allegations should be treated as, well, allegations. Life is like that – sometime you just have incomplete information that calls on you to deal with that information with some sophistication. That some of our tens of thousands of daily readers will not be prudent hardly seems like an argument for denying the information to everyone. Personally, I’m glad to have the grade school days of “it’s always a few that spoil it for everyone else” behind me.

You may want to know, for instance, that your neighbor has been arrested on a rape charge. No, it’s not the same thing as being convicted on a rape charge, but it’s hard to believe that most people, given a choice, would not want that information. Likewise, you would probably want to know that the teen that your son pals around with has been arrested for driving under the influence. It’s up to you how to handle the information, but, if it were me, I’d likely decide that that news deserves my personal inquiries, with my son and possibly the parents of his friend.

(On a personal note, it was certainly valuable to me to learn from this very same Law & Disorder column a few years ago that my eldest stepson, then a minor, had been arrested with a friend and both charged with misdemeanors for some pretty serious mischief. The nitwit -- I love him dearly, truly I do -- had intended to keep the information from me and his mother and handle the criminal justice system himself. We didn’t assume his guilt, but we did assume the situation needed some adult attention, which, I can assure you, it got.)

It is true that the police incident reports sometimes are inaccurate or incomplete. It is true that sometimes reporters make mistakes in transforming incident reports or interviews with police into published items. But in all cases in which we receive complaints about alleged inaccuracies a reporter is assigned to backtrack on the information, a process that usually involves running the complaint past the police for verification or correction. If the information was wrong, we correct it, both in print and online. To me, that’s accountability.

For the record, we get, on average, about one complaint about this material every two weeks; about three-quarters of those prove to need a correction. Most of the complaints are about the addresses of residence of those charged with crimes. The assertion that police item inaccuracies are published every day does not conform to our daily experience over the years.

Finally, I’m not sure how to respond to the Freeman being compared to an oppressive regime that routinely employed torture and systematically suppressed the flow of information to stay in power. But the Egypt of Hosni Mubarak infantilized its citizens by stripping them of power over their own lives; we trust our audience to decide for itself how to use the information we publish.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Why we sometime print information from competing news sources

A reader criticizes us for posting a synopsis of the findings of an investigation by the Times Herald-Record into the record of area developer Steve Aaron. The essence of the criticism is that we should have written the piece ourselves:

the truth wrote on Jan 3, 2012 8:44 AM:
" Now the Freeman is printing news about real investigative reporting done by the Record !!!
This paper never ceases to amaze.
That was an excellent investigative piece in the Record...maybe the Freeman should take note how a newspaper should be doing investigative reporting.
Or you could just report what is in the Record everday. "
We’d like to be all things to all people at all times. There was a time when the local daily newspaper was something close to that, delivering most of the international, national, state and local news, sports and entertainment that residents within its area would be exposed to within an average day.

There was a time when that presumption meant that news organizations rarely recognized the work of another news organization.
Those days are long gone. News travels very quickly from a multiplicity of sources, mostly by digital means. Consumers have instant access to news from many sources.
Further, market forces have eroded the ability of nearly all news organizations to cover the ground as they once did. This applies to the former great television network news organizations, The New York Times, The Associated Press, the Washington Post, and the Daily Freeman, Poughkeepsie Journal and Times Herald-Record alike.
We are dedicated to getting the most complete news possible in front of our readers as it becomes available. If that happens to be done digitally by an area news organization, we want to bring it to the attention of our readers. We don’t think that diminishes us in any way.

To my eye this morning, the Record story took a very methodical approach to the record of Steve Aaron, in part summarizing what we had previously reported (and attributing it to us) and compiling and reporting some new information about the breadth and depth of legal actions against Aaron. That’s why I chose to post a synopsis of the Record story, with links both to the full online story and to two previous stories published by the Freeman, one on Aaron's allegations of racism and anti-Semitism against the Ulster County Industrial Development Agency and the other on his recently approved housing project in the city of Kingston.