Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Media craziness: A case study (updated)

I heard about this story yesterday and at first blush was inclined to take it at face value.

An 8-year-old Massachusetts boy was sent home from school and ordered to undergo a psychological evaluation after he was asked to make a Christmas drawing and sketched what appeared to be a stick figure of Jesus on a cross, the child's father said Tuesday.

I thought about blogging about it or more likely sending it to Lenore Skenazy at Free Range Kids because, although it wasn't directly about child safety overkill, it seemed to be about hysterical school district administrators, a frequent sub-theme of her work. So this morning I was looking for more information and came upon this...
School officials in Taunton, Mass., say the local newspaper -- which first reported the news -- and other outlets got the story all wrong.
...and this:
But school officials say that the account in yesterday’s Taunton Daily Gazette was rife with errors and that the father’s description of what happened is untrue.
Now both of these change the story significantly. Of course, perhaps the school district is shading the truth to protect a bad policy decision. Yet many of the comments on the NPR blog item Boston Globe story AP story simply miss the point and assume the original narrative ("Kid suspended for picture of Christ crucified!") is still the correct one.

To be sure, the boy's father is standing by his story, and it's clear that the newspaper that originally reported it isn't backing off from its understanding of events.

Yet, curiously, the Boston Globe story this morning reports:
After reading the account in the local paper, Mayor Charles Crowley of Taunton asked Hackett to apologize to the boy’s parents. But in a telephone interview late yesterday, he said he stands by the superintendent.

“Dr. Hackett has far more of the facts than I do, and now I understand that the report was not accurate,’’ he said. “Based on her account, I stand behind my superintendent. She is in possession of the facts.’’
Meanwhile, the Taunton paper posted at just after midnight (probably about the same time as the Globe story went to press) its own account in which the mayor is still demanding an apology.

With everyone on the defensive, it seems unlikely that anyone will back off of his or her position now, regardless of what "really" did or didn't happen.

And this happens all the time in the news. All the time. Think about "Balloon Boy" -- the original narrative of that was "kid is likely in terrible jeopardy," and all the TV networks were riveted to it, remember? Not surprisingly a commenter at the Taunton Gazetteweb site--skeptical about the original Jesus-picture story--makes a direct comparison to that case. Then there was the big Time magazine story about the teen moms (also in New England) who supposedly had a pact to all get pregnant--a story that appears to have evaporated as well. Or not. (Probably the most evenhanded summary is here. But Google the words: Time magazine story on "pregnancy pact" and you'll quickly see how the story became fodder for all kinds of ideologically based reaction.)

No one's hands are clean here. Not the news organization that run with sensational stories and decide their jobs are done when key figures don't comment. (In the Taunton case, the stonewalling was due, almost certainly, to the fact school officials are bound by state confidentiality laws.) Not the officials themselves, who unfortunately have to remember the real world they operate in includes media like these ones. (Comments at the Taunton paper web site suggest the publication has some credibility problems with readers; could that have influenced the superintendent to stonewall, too? If so, another bad call.) And news consumers need to look in the mirror, too.

Somewhere down the road, perhaps there will be a follow-up case study.

Or maybe just a TV movie.


I don't promise to keep updating this story, but today's edition of the Gazette indicates the story probably won't die soon.

The paper also has this report on a school board meeting at which the issue arose.

What's noteworthy to me is this: In the text of the story, it says the superintendent
"also refuted “another false [media] report” that Taunton Mayor Charles Crowley wanted Hackett to apologize to the community and the family over the incident. “This is not the case,” she said... A call to Crowley was not immediately returned Wednesday night."

I spent a few minutes just now trying to see if I could find a written version of the superintendent's statement so we could find out what word (if any) was replaced with the bracketed word "media". One possibility is that it's simply an insertion, felt necessary by the newspaper to explain "report". But the paper is silent on the fact that it alone seems to have generated the story of the supposed mayoral demand for an apology.


  1. I'm not sure what to make of the father's request for a "small lump sum." Maybe he's a weasel or maybe he's one of those people who takes a "Injustice=payday" approach to his legitimate claims. (I've run across some of those people.)

    It wasn't very media-savvy of him to mention this request to the paper, but not-media-savvy doesn't necessarily mean "wrong" either.

    At the same time, if kiddo drew a violent and bloody crucifixion and the town had recently had a suicide of an older kid who made similar drawings, I get the concern.



  2. It is complicated. And as a working journalist it really drives me nuts when so many news organizations ignore how complicated so many stories really are.

  3. Though I disagree with you on Garrison Keillor, I'm with you on the oversimplifications. Indeed, they are one reason why I started out in journalism and ended up in law.

    That said, I kinda feel for the reporters in that it looks like the Superintendant only gave her interview to the Boston Globe. They perhaps relied too much on the father's apparently questionable version of things, yet it does seem like he was the only source that was talking.

    Sigh. I've been there.


  4. I've written for the small town paper and in the big city paper and yes, it sometimes happens that the person being sought for comment snubs the small town one in favor of the big city one.

    But...and on this point I'm going to be very tentative, because it relies too much on internet commenters for "evidence"... skimming the comments at the Taunton web site, I found myself wondering if the paper has a history with readers of sensationalism. Certainly some were quick to accuse as much. By themselves those claims aren't proof of anything, but it does provide a potential line of inquiry.

    I do hope that someone like CJR will follow up and dig deeper into how this story was handled...

  5. The small town paper I worked for was all about the sensationalism. I didn't like it when I worked there, though I have to admit that unlike many small town papers, it still exists.


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