Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Michael Brown: A Conversation With my Son

OK, I tried to avoid it, but now I hafta write about the Ferguson situation.

Yes, I'm a mom who with a son who is only two years older than Michael Brown, the young man who was shot to death by a police officer less than two weeks ago.

As an editor, I spend lots of time each day sifting through wire stories about the unrest and police activity going on in that small town in Missouri. And because there is a television in my workspace, I'm also able to catch press conferences and the like during the day as well.

I gotta tell say this is making me sick.
Lesley McSpadden (R) and Michael Brown Sr. (L), parents of 18-year-old Michael Brown,

I'm not going to wax poetic about the travesty that is shooting an unarmed teen to death - not at all.

I won't try to pretend I can do anything but feel helpless when I see the faces of his parents in the photographs that come across my work computer screen.

I will not say how my stomach drops when the footage of the police in riot gear, shields and tanks with scope riffles roll across the television screen.

But I will say this: my son is beginning to stress about it now. And that simply is not OK.

Today, he sent me a text message asking if I'd heard about the latest shooting, this one in St. Louis, which is only a few miles way from Ferguson. His choice of words told me he was upset and not really too sure of what to do with this information.

Turns out he'd spent the last hour or so watching CNN. He'd convinced himself that the latest shooting - specifically the way in which it was covered - was designed to only do one thing: justify the police action (unruly man brandishing a knife is lawfully killed when he refuses to obey a police order). He called it "death by suicide" and couldn't believe how quickly the media jumped on it.

I told him what I tell my journalism students: timeliness - stories of similar vein happening around the same time - is one of  the seven news values that help editors and TV/radio news producers determine if a story should be covered. Because the dissemination of information was a major problem in the tiny hamlet of Ferguson, the larger metropolis of St. Louis did not make the mistake of even tying to appear that three was information being hidden. The press was around because there was breaking news down the street in Ferguson. St. Louis, probably learning from Ferguson's mis-cues, got the information out to the public via the press as soon as they could. Yes, the investigation is ongoing, but transparency is important to help people know what's happening and figure out a way to deal with it.

We chatted for a long time. By the time we were done, he was calmer and a bit more understanding of the process. Yes, he was still upset, but seemed able to find a place to put that, if that makes any sense.

We will talk about it again tomorrow, I'm sure.

But that we have to again tomorrow, is not OK.

Neither is the idea that we even have to have reminder discussions and talk about "what to do if" and think about safer courses of action (he's a martial artist, too).

That is the legacy of situations like this, unfortunately. teachable moments are usually one-shot deals, not gifts that keep on giving.

I feel that sinking thing that lets me know I can't protect him anymore from everything.

And it absolutely sucks...

Monday, June 16, 2014

It Ain't Her Fault

Allergic to stupidity...
What do you get when a few journalists together in a newsroom and a poorly written press release about an attempted rape comes off the fax machine?

Lively debate.

Here's the scenario: the police beat reporter mentioned that the release included a comment from the district attorney's office about the party the victim went to the night she was attacked and that she may have - GASP! - actually consumed alcohol at said party. The release said she was asleep when her attacker snuck into her room and tried to rape her. Yep - asleep. Not "passed out." Not "highly inebriated." Not "sloppy drunk." Just. Asleep.

The reporter and I had the same question: why was it necessary to mention that she'd gone to a party and possibly drank the night she was a victim of a violent crime?

We saw it like this: had the crime been an attempted robbery and she asleep when it occurred, would the fact that she drank have been mentioned? Honestly, I was surprised they did not mention the type of nightgown she was wearing during the attack.

The other two editors didn't agree. They did not see the terms "alcohol" and "party" as faulting the victim, but only as indicators that she was unable to defend herself. "It just goes to illustrate what a scum this guy really is because he attacked someone who obviously could not defend herself," the desk editor said.

Remember, the information said ASLEEP.  Not DRUNK. Another editor said the wording used probably showed that she was drunk because if she wasn't, she might have been able to fight back. A sleeping person, he said, would surely have been able to react.

But nowhere in the info we got did it say she was unable to react. Or that she didn't. That seemed to me to be total speculation.

And as a result, the reporter did not want to include it in the story. The desk editor overruled her - but suggested that she discuss it with the managing editor if she still had a problem with it. The words were still hanging in a bubble above us - like in a cartoon - and the reporter was out of her chair and on her way to do just that. And guess what? It was decided it was OK to include the info about the party as long as it was attributed to the DA who said it.

And my mouth is still hanging open.

Let me fill in some blanks: the other two editors and the managing editors are male. The reporter and I are not.

Did that have anything to do with the idea that the three of them didn't quite seem to get the victim blaming/slut shaming the DA was trying to push via the release? I'm sure it had a lot to do with it.

And I was HOT for the rest of the daggone day.

Just so we're clear, it is never ok to make the victim of any crime the reason s/he was the victim. I have a real problem with the idea that women in sexual assault situations are somehow the exception. What she wore, what she consumed, whether she kissed the assailant are TOTALLY irrelevant when force is involved or a "no" is ignored.

Asleep in your bed in your own home seems like a place to assume you are relatively safe. The assumption of fault on the part of the sleeper is a stretch in my book.

But, I'm sure the DA is betting that more folks in the possible jury pool will be swayed to think that somehow, the victim does bare some onus because, well, she had the audacity to go to a party and possibly drink the night she was attacked. And you know what? The DA might be right.

And that's a total, total shame, IMHO...

Monday, April 7, 2014

Just a regular news day...

Do you ever hear people say that all the media ever covers is BAD news?

You know, I use to argue tooth and nail that such WAS NOT the case. I spent countless hours in front of a classroom full of journalism students, chatting at parties and via Facebook posts telling anyone who would listen that journalists do not create the news, we just tell you what happened.

With my son now in his third year of college, his hefty tuition and dorm fees have forced me to again leave freelancing behind. Today, I am employed as a copyeditor for an upstate newspaper. I see a lot of how stories are chosen for each day's edition, which, of course, I already knew having worked at different times as a reporter, a photojournalist and an editor for newspapers before. I also have quite a bit of say as to what national and state stories run as well (although not so much for the local stories), but suffice to say that the process has started to make me see things on the "what news appears" front a bit differently.

We cover every single fire, accident, fatal situation (accidental or homicide), robbery and fraud story that happens in a five- and sometimes six-county area. Seriously, the local page looks like a who's who in area crime, with an occasional school board or town council meeting thrown in for good measure.

So am I saying that there is no good news that happens there ever? Reading the paper, you'd probably say "Yep."

I still stand by the adage that journalists do not make the news. But I also know that our obligation is to present a fair and accurate account of the goings-on. Fires, murders, rapes, robberies - they are EASY to find, because the police send a press release about it or info as to where the fire is happening comes directly to us via a scanner. We couldn't ignore it if we tried - but it definitely effects the "fair and balanced" part of the equation by presenting an image that is mostly bad. Sadly, my employer isn't the only media outlet doing that. (seriously, turn on the 5PM or 11PM television news and note the first 10 stories covered. I bet you money that 90% of them are bad news). The question I wish more producers and more editors would ask is this: Why is Breaking News - the stuff so important we must interrupt everything else to tell you about it - always, always, ALWAYS bad news? How about more of an effort to give us the not so bad news happening out there? Can't we spend even half the amount of time looking for the feel-good stuff - the boy scout walking the elderly lady across the street or the barber who runs a mentoring program for teens on the side - as we do the horrible tragedies?

Would it be so terrible to cover as much good news as bad news for a change?

The city where my employer is located is about 15 percent African-American, yet NOT ONE story of any Black History month event ran during the entire month of February. And not one feature or even minuscule coverage of a Women's History Month event ran during the whole of March either. Seriously - not one story at all. Not fair or balanced in IMHO.

I'm not saying that the bad stuff isn't news, but I think those of us who put that paper together have an obligation to find that balance by looking a whole lot harder for the good stuff. And one feature a week on the Life Section page barely scratches the surface...

What do you think: is the media becoming a beacon of bad news by covering all the scary stories but neglecting the good?

Time's Been Up

Doesn't matter if it's Bill Cosby, President Trump, singer R. Kelly, producer Harvey Weinstein, editorial director Lockhart St...