Sunday, April 16, 2006
The coverage of teens' actions
When teenagers do stupid things, they create problems not only for themselves, but for the news media who cover those actions.
When I was a general assignment reporter at The Carthage Press; it was either in 1991 or 1992, I was covering a Carthage High School girls basketball game at Webb City when Coach Ron Wallace pulled his star player out of the game. The girl angrily walked off the court, and headed straight to the locker room, dressed, returned to the court and defiantly threw her uniform at her coach.
When my game account was written, I did not include a word about the girl's actions. I only considered writing about it for a flickering second, then put it out of my mind.
I did consider the negative ramifications of my decision:
-I was not providing a truthful and accurate account of what happened during that ballgame.
-A large crowd had witnessed the event and the people probably wanted to know the truth about what had happened.
-What if the girls' parents were to bring some kind of action against the coach? Wouldn't it be embarrassing for The Press to have to admit that it didn't even bother to write about an event that had turned into a major lawsuit?
-If I didn't write about it, how could people ever trust they were receiving an accurate account of events concerning anything that was written in The Carthage Press?
In retrospect, I probably should have talked to the sports editor Bill Denney or to managing editor Neil Campbell, but I based my decision on the 14 to 15 years of journalism experience I had at that time and on a bad experience I had in 1984 at the Lamar Democrat when I went against by better judgment and wrote about four LHS basketball players who had been kept out of a game for a quarter after being spotted drinking. I was never comfortable with that story, never could justify its running afterward, and I had vowed never to let it happen again.
The afternoon after my account of the Carthage-Webb City game appeared in The Press, sports editor Denney angrily approached me after lunch and said, "I want to talk to you in the conference room NOW!' I didn't argue since I never quite reached 5-9, weigh only about 170 pounds and Bill Denney, a former CHS basketball standout, was well over six foot (probably closer to seven feet) and outweighed me by plenty.
After we entered the conference room, Bill slammed his massive fist against the wooden table and shouted (his entire end of the conversation was a shout), "Why didn't you put anything in your story about --- quitting the team and throwing her jersey at the coach?"
I tried to keep my tone calm. "I'm not going to let that girl's family have to suffer any more embarrassment."
"But it's NEWS," he said.
And he was right, it was news. I tried to explain how I would have taken a different approach if the girl had returned with a gun or if her family had physically assaulted the coach. "I don't want that girls' children to look back some day and see what a stupid thing their mother did."
Bill just glared at me and continued yelling about how I had no right to make that decision. I pointed out to him that reporters and editors make those kinds of decisions all the time.
As the argument escalated, apparently the women at the front desk became concerned that Bill might be killing me, and the second Neil Campbell returned from lunch, he was steered directly to the conference room.
"Boys," Neil said, in his quiet manner, "What's the problem?"
Bill said, "Well, listen to this and you decide what we should have done. This girl quit the Carthage basketball team in the middle of the game, left the court, came back and threw her jersey at the coach. What would you have done?"
Neil looked directly at Bill and said precisely the right thing. "Well, Bill, I would have done exactly what you did. I wouldn't have used it in the story."
Bill stormed out of the room without saying another word. "I assume you were the one who left the incident out of the story," Neil said. I nodded. No further mention was ever made of it, as far as I can recall.
I thought about this incident as I followed the media's coverage of the kidnapping hoax story involving Independence, Kan., teen Kelsey Stelting. It's never easy to know just how far to go with these stories.
Obviously, there is a clear difference between Miss Stelting's actions and the actions of the Carthage High School basketball player. A considerable amount of taxpayer money was wasted as the authorities hunted for the girl and then had to break down her false kidnapping allegation. People raised money to help in the situation and the hoax affected everyone who had invested themselves in this story and in trying to help this young girl.
It was a legitimate story and undeniably should have been a top of page one story in the Globe and the lead story on every newscast, and for the most part, it was.
The TV people did their job, covering the story from every angle. That's what reporters should do. They gather information. But the moment, the authorities expressed doubt about her story, that might have been a time to have trimmed the time spent on recounting every detail of the girl's story. It was fairly obvious from that point on, this was going to be turn out to be a hoax. I also might have eliminated the overgratuitous clips of Independence townspeople who were upset about the incident. They had absolutely every right to be upset, and it made for good television. But as I watched the coverage, it reminded me of the same kind of local journalism feeding frenzy that I wrote about in my novel, Small Town News.
Perhaps, the worst offender was KOAM's decision to have a poll asking viewers what punishment Ms. Stelting should receive. The poll had no news value, whatsoever.
Kelsey Stelting does not deserve a free pass. No matter what problems led her to take these actions, she hurt a lot of people and she cost the taxpayers a lot of money. She deserves the scrutiny of the media and the public, but she did not kill anyone; she just made a stupid teenage mistake. For that to cover the first five minutes of nearly every newscast for two or three days was riveting television, but may not have served the interests of journalism.
As for the Joplin Globe, the revelation that Kelsey Stelting's kidnapping was a hoax, was in the dominant page-one position, the upper right-hand corner. Of course, the article was not written by a Globe reporter, but by The Associated Press.