Analyzing coverage of the Phoebe Prince story

Occasional Media Nation commenter Bill Weye has written a detailed critique of how his local newspaper, the Springfield Republican, has covered the Phoebe Prince story. Weye offers a harsh analysis, pointing his finger at newsroom cutbacks and a court reporter whom he considers to be inexperienced.

I know nothing about the Republican. But whether Weye is right or wrong, his post strikes me as a well-thought-out take that is worth reading.

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20 thoughts on “Analyzing coverage of the Phoebe Prince story

  1. Matt Storin

    Dan: I agree that he has made, by and large, a meticulous study of the coverage and that his sort of critique is necessary and useful. But unless I am misreading it, his “investigation” included an email inquiry with a Globe reporter but no obvious effort to ask the Republican reporter for her side. That doesn’t seem fair.

  2. Matt,

    You’re right, I wasn’t fair.

    But I’m a blogger, so I don’t have to be fair! … Just kidding, I want to be fair. It was a bad oversight on my part.

    I am trying to contact the reporter as I write this and will update the post and leave another comment here when I have some news.

    Thanks for pointing this out, Matt.

  3. Julie Manganis

    Dan, it seems very unfair and almost mean-spirited of Weye to call the reporter “incompetent.” She’s a town or general assignment reporter who was sent to cover a court proceeding, not someone who is familiar with covering courts on a daily basis, as he goes on to acknowledge. Should someone have briefed her on what to expect and what to look for during and after a court proceeding? Sure. Should Weye have at least attempted to reach out to the Republican and Constantine for an explanation before publishing his critique? Absolutely.

    I’d also point out that not all district attorneys file a statement of the case at arraignment and so it’s possible that her editors did not realize one would be forthcoming.

  4. I can’t get into my justification for using the word “incompetent”. I will say that I thought about it, was going to rephrase it, then decided to go with it. Obviously if I worked for an editor, they would probably make me cut it. Also note that I heap scorn on the editors too.

    I didn’t reach out to Constantine. That was my fault, and I’m trying to correct it. I did contact her via email yesterday to offer a chance to comment. Thus far, 18 hours later, I haven’t received a response. I will post an update in these comments if/when she contacts me. I will also update the blog post with a note at the bottom. As to contacting the Republican … I don’t want to get into that. Can’t.

    Julie, you have much more courthouse reporting experience than I do, but I thought that any case brought before a court that did not have an indictment from a grand jury then had to have support for the charges presented by the DA? This part of the case was in county court (as opposed to other defendants that are being charged in state superior court). The case against the teens presented in state superior went before the grand jury first, thus no memorandum of law. Bottom line: the Globe and NY Times got the docs. They waited until later in the day to write and file their stories. Neither the Republican reporter nor editors knew enough to do that.

    One last note about my experience writing this blog post. Probably because of how I couched the post (as an “investigation”), and because I attempted to do a thorough job (despite my mistake of not contacting Constantine), I get the sense that people are holding me to a higher standard than your stereotypical “crazy blogger” writing screeds. That’s okay with me. I can definitely live with that.

    In a way I think my experience speaks to Howard Kurtz’ column, Who Needs Critics, Anyway?
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/04/12/AR2010041201135.html

    If independent bloggers are going to be the new critics, then I think bloggers need to step up to the plate and be worthy of reading.

  5. L.K. Collins

    This whole matter raises the legitimate question as to Mr. Weye’s capacity as a media critic.

    So far, the the reviews of his work put him in a class similar to the one in which he has placed Constantine.

  6. BP Myers

    I would point out that “incompetent” simply means “not competent.” It does not always have to have all of the negative connotations usually associated with the word.

    Mr. Weye supported his allegation of her being not competent by pointing out her inexperience on the beat, even setting aside that she may or may not have made a mistake by not asking for the evidence document and other, what appear to be fundamental mistakes.

    He also placed these errors in the broader context of all the cutbacks in recent years at the Republican, and placed most (if not all) of the blame, not on the reporter, but on her editors.

    She may be a wonderful and gritty political or metro reporter for all I know, but that does not necessarily make her competent to work the courthouse beat.

    Most of us have been given jobs or assignments in our working life which we were not competent to handle, but we gamely did our best anyway. Perhaps this is just one of those instances.

  7. L.K. Collins

    Perhaps Mr. Weye would like provide some context as to why his unflattering remarks, and his lack of thoroughness, would suggest that he is not as incompetent as he alleges Constantine to be.

    It would also seem that “incompetent” is a singularly negative assessment, no matter when or where it is used.

    To contend otherwise seems to be a bit of a stretch.

    What may have started out as a thoughtful, and possibly accurate, assessment of the situation at that paper turned out to be a hatchet job of significant proportions.

  8. First an update: I emailed Constantine on 4/15 at 6:11pm and have received no response. If at any time she wants to respond to what I wrote, I will publish her response in full. I should have attempted to contact her before publishing, but I didn’t. Given that she hasn’t responded now, I’m not sure she would have responded before I published.

    Let me be as clear as I can: my post is completely based on reporting that I did. There is absolutely nothing in that post that’s mere speculation. Nothing. I have sources that I can’t reveal. The fact that I even acknowledge having sources puts their identity at risk.

    I want to make two points that will hopefully put this matter to rest. During a conversation with one of the sources, after hearing what they had to say, I said that Constantine was incompetent. My source shrugged. I took that to mean that the source was comfortable with my assessment. And of course, the reporter wasn’t the only one to blame; the editors should have known better.

    Second, because of the delicate nature of my sources identities, I actually ran the post by them before posting to make sure they weren’t popping up in a way I wasn’t aware of. They suggested 2 minor changes, but said nothing about my conclusions. Let me quote one of the sources after they read the post: “Thanks for considering these changes. I think the revised version still shows a lot of legwork on your part, and it’s certainly still a strong argument.”

    L.K., I appreciate your concern about me being fair. I think I have been fair. In fact, I did start to write a “hatchet job” but pulled back because I thought the story deserved more thought and attention. That’s why I tweeted a request for sources that could help me (see it here: http://twitter.com/bill_weye/status/11882173919 ). That tweet produced my sources within a couple of hours, then I spent another 2 1/2 days researching, reporting and writing.

    I would love to see any examples of independent bloggers that have taken that kind of attention when writing a critical piece.

    Thank you all for your feedback and reading my piece.

  9. Pingback: Banal Failures of The Springfield Republican’s Phoebe Prince Coverage — Weye.org

  10. L.K. Collins

    Just my take, but your instinct to back-off the hatchet job would have been advisable. I would contend your assessment of incompetence WITHOUT YOUR DIRECT EXPERIENCE WITH CONSTANTINE was editorial in nature, not reportorial.

    Inexperienced may have been a better, and more fair characterization. I am sure that your first weeks as a reporter put you at the incompetent level, but inexperience implies a degree of willingness to understand that incompetence is the starting level in most professions.

    But I would be more concerned about your election to post the piece without consultation with your victim and what it implies about your willingness/ability to present an accurate story.

    Much of that is for you to churn over for yourself.

    A greater point is why Dan, here on his blog, would heap such praise as he has on such a seriously flawed critique.

    Ironically, had you just left out the “incompetent” statement and let the reader make the assessment himself, the article would have maintained integrity and your underlying points would have been made.

    Instead, you turned the discussional focus to your writings, not Ms. Constantine’s.

    Not good.

  11. Mike Stucka

    If we’re going to play media criticism with media criticism, I’ll take a swipe. Let’s look at one paragraph of the response to Julie Manganis, the finest court reporter I ever had the privilege of working with:

    Julie, you have much more courthouse reporting experience than I do, but I thought that any case brought before a court that did not have an indictment from a grand jury then had to have support for the charges presented by the DA?

    Start off with praise and appeal to ego or at least acknowledgment of expertise. Essentially admit lesser levels of expertise, but reply anyway. Write what reads like a statement, but ends in a question mark. In statement, question basic claim by person with acknowledged greater expertise, without attempt to further determine truth, as via a telephone to court clerk’s office or legal reference on court procedures.

    This part of the case was in county court (as opposed to other defendants that are being charged in state superior court). The case against the teens presented in state superior went before the grand jury first, thus no memorandum of law.

    Offer basic understanding of background facts that were already called into question and acknowledged by self as inferior to someone else’s. Why say it without confirmation?

    Bottom line: the Globe and NY Times got the docs.

    “Bottom line” reads like a conclusion directly supported by earlier claims. It’s not.

    They waited until later in the day to write and file their stories.

    This is probably the biggest error in the paragraph, though it seems innocuous. The problems:
    1) There’s nothing inherently positive about waiting. Waiting implies waste. This is written as if reporters get one shot in the news cycle to post online stories, which would be a terrible misunderstanding of Web news.
    2) Weye *does* understand this. He picks up on the fact the story was updated later in the day. He knows the story can be updated.
    3) This implies Weye thinks the posting of factual information online early is … wrong?
    4) It’s not, because that was information from an open court proceeding.
    5) But the real problem is Weye’s thesis is that The Republican keeps getting scooped. In this case, when The Republican got its own scoop, Weye is holding it against the paper. This should be room for praise and a chance to reconsider the basic argument that an underresourced paper is unable to break any small part of the news. Instead, Weye turns it into another chance for an attack. Another way to say this: Instead of acknowledging a point where the target of his criticism did well, and acknowledging a point that contradicts his core argument, Weye holds it against the target.

    I know what I’d say to Weye if I received that criticism, but I wouldn’t repeat it in front of my toddler.

    Neither the Republican reporter nor editors knew enough to do that.(check back in the day)

    Again, a basic flaw is he never contacted the reporter to find out the facts. This is akin to the classic “WHY IS THIS FRONT PAGE NEWS?” argument by readers, who never fail to see what isn’t front-page news on 3A and compare them. Was it incompetence, or was it simply that something else came up? As an example, the reporter could have had the intention of checking back in with court, but got called away to a house fire. It happens. We don’t know, because the critic didn’t pick up the phone and ask.

    Beyond the question of incompetence, Weye also neglects the fact that, surely, if a majority of the reporting staff was ousted, then the experience level dropped, per-person workload increased and the training budget disappeared. So was there any way for her to know the statement was going to be filed? Was there any way for her to know such statements even existed?

    And Weye’s core argument revolves around the question of timing and getting the documentation, despite his own horribly flawed attack on the timeline. So would the reporter have reason to believe the statement would have been filed that day, anyway? And just when was it filed?

    Weye tries establishing a timeline in his blog post by quoting an e-mail to a Boston reporter who thinks it came late in the day. That’s far from definitive. It also leaves out the possibility that the other reporters might not have -known- about the document having been filed until late in the day; it could have even been contemporaneous with the morning hearing, but without a phone call to the prosecutor’s office there’s no way to know … even though that could have bolstered Weye’s argument.

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @Mike: You’re onto one of my favorite recurring themes, which is when does a media critic have to pick up the phone and when is it all right to comment on what’s already out there. It’s something I’ve wrestled with from my earliest days as a media columnist in the early ’90s, and it’s only gotten more complicated in blogging.

      We start from the premise that a news report is publicly available for all to see, and there are certain types of commentary that are perfectly fine to indulge without interviewing anyone. In that respect, it’s not much different from reviewing books, movies or restaurants. I don’t have to call Steven Spielberg for comment before writing that his latest film stinks.

      But there are other types of media stories that can’t be told without a lot of reporting. A rule of thumb I’ve tried to follow — not always successfully — is that if I start speculating on motives, how a piece of journalism might have gone bad or who might have screwed up, then I’ve got to stop and report it out just like any other story.

  12. Larry Fine

    I’d have an easier time buying whatever it is Bill Weye is selling if he had done even the most BASIC of investigation. Bill, the name of the publication that you are attempting to critique is ‘The Republican’ … NOT ‘The Springfield Republican.’ If you can’t get the name right, how can I believe any of the rest of the article? And don’t even get me started on accepting a ‘shrug from a source’ as being ‘comfortable with your assessment.’ Constantine may or may not be incompetent, but you have certainly shown yourself to be worthy of the term ‘hack.’

  13. @Mike – I didn’t attack the. reporter, but I am going to attack your willfully uninformed comments. Here it comes …

    You didn’t read my last comment above. Read it. I detail as much as I can about the sourcing of the piece.

    In statement, question basic claim by person with acknowledged greater expertise, without attempt to further determine truth, as via a telephone to court clerk’s office or legal reference on court procedures.

    I did go to the court clerks office (state superior in Northampton) to get an explanation about how documents are or are not released. That’s why I wrote what I wrote.

    As an example, the reporter could have had the intention of checking back in with court, but got called away to a house fire. It happens. We don’t know, because the critic didn’t pick up the phone and ask.

    Again, you aren’t reading my comments. There is ABSOLUTELY NOTHING that I wrote that isn’t well sourced. Period.

    Weye tries establishing a timeline in his blog post by quoting an e-mail to a Boston reporter who thinks it came late in the day. That’s far from definitive. It also leaves out the possibility that the other reporters might not have -known- about the document having been filed until late in the day; it could have even been contemporaneous with the morning hearing, but without a phone call to the prosecutor’s office there’s no way to know … even though that could have bolstered Weye’s argument.

    About the time line: I also confirmed this with a NY Times reporter at the same time I did with the Globe, AND one of my sources confirmed the time line. 3 sources.

    Getting the information found in the memo of law would NOT have been possible to do contemporaneous with the hearing because the hearing lasted 5 minutes early in the morning. The charges and pleas were entered and that’s it. THAT’S why the Globe and Times waited for the memo of law and not just the indictments.

    This case is very confusing to many people, including lawyers and experienced court reporters. There are 6 defendants being charged in 3 different courts: county, state superior, and juvenile (sealed). There are 3 teens being charged in the juvenile court, but those same teens are also being charged in the county court as “youthful offenders” — meaning in fact we know who the teens are in the juvenile court. That’s right, they are being charged as both adults (“youthful offenders) and juvenile. Then we have 3 others because of age and the crime (statutory rape) are being charged in state superior. Got that?

    If you say that you understood that from the beginning, you’re not being honest. The Republican, AP, and Globe ALL had to write corrections/clarifications because they had it wrong at first.

    Mike, it’s clear you didn’t like what I wrote, but based on your comments I think any criticism would have been flawed.

    @ Dan, I don’t believe I speculated on motives at all in my piece. I didn’t have to because I had sources and otherwise it was easy to read the public record.

  14. L.K. Collins

    Nice dance, Dan, but it neither excuses Mr. Weye’s mistake nor addresses your decision to praise such a flawed presentation by its repetition.

    Does that not put you in circumstances similar to what what Mr. Weye finds himself with is article?

    1. Dan Kennedy

      @L.K.: I wasn’t talking to you. I was talking to @Mike Stucka, a former student of mine and a fine journalist.

  15. L.K. Collins

    So what?

    Mr. Stucka’s credentials in journalism are his to earn — and it appears he is capable of that — and not yours to bestow.

    Your answer was still a dance, and it still avoided addressing your heaping of praise on a flawed presentation.

    Mr. Weye? I find it odd how connecting the name of a reporter to the word “incompetent” as you did isn’t an attack on the person.

    I would suggest that it is certainly not a compliment.

    Care to elaborate?

  16. Julie Manganis

    There are seven divisions of the Massachusetts Trial Court: Superior, Probate and Family, District, Juvenile, Land, Housing, and Boston Municipal. (The SJC and Appeals Court are not “trial” courts). There is no such thing as “County Court” in Massachusetts, so I’m confused as to what Mr. Weye means when he says there are three courts involved.
    Yes, prosecutors (or police) are required to file a statement of facts establishing probable cause in support of an application for criminal charges against someone, but since this case came to the Superior Court via indictment by a grand jury, that indictment is considered the finding of probable cause. Some district attorneys (and the Attorney General) file a statement of facts anyway, while others (including the DA in the area I cover) do not.

    The real issue here, of course, is not a tutorial on the state court system or the experience level of the reporter sent to cover the case (or that of the blogger, for that matter) but the overall effect of shrinking revenues on the quality of coverage of specialty beats like courts or education or politics, particularly at the local level. I think that may have been in part the intent of Mr. Weye’s analysis but it got lost in the overall tone of his piece and his subsequent responses. Frankly it sounds like Mr. Weye is simply not a fan of the Republican.

  17. Mike Stucka

    Bill: Everything is well-sourced, you say, except we’re told to believe in your anonymous sources’ shrugging, as Larry Fine points out.

    The core problems with your criticism stand, and you haven’t addressed them at all:

    — You say The Republican kept getting scooped, but your main argument is focused on them having something before anyone else. Rather than praising them for at least covering the morning hearing, you actually hold that against them — as if they get one shot to get a story online, despite your own finding that they updated the story. This point has nothing to do with sources: It’s a basic, critical logical flaw at the heart of your criticism of the paper. You are, quite simply, wrong.

    — You keep talking about your superior sourcing. Whatever. You’re relying on anonymous sources only you know about communicating with body language, and maybe raspy voices from pay phones. Whatever. You’re missing out on the very most critical source here, which is the target of your criticism. You never even thought to call the reporter until it was brought up here. You call out the reporter for being incompetent, without knowing whether that’s true, or whether there’s external reasons for not picking up the documentation (inadequate training, out-of-beat coverage without good contacts, miscommunication, called away to another story, had to lay out a TMC, car broke down, doctor’s appointment, alien abduction). So you have no problem blasting someone else over your own assumptions, don’t even think to contact them (“bad oversight on my part”) before you launch the broadside, and then talk about your superior sourcing.

    Now you’re claiming that you didn’t attack the reporter, despite calling her incompetent in your opening paragraph. Reporters grow thick skins; critics do to. Perhaps it’s *you* who is new to the game and can’t handle any criticism, even where it’s objectively accurate.

    Or we can stick by your perception that it’s my fault that your piece is inherently flawed.

    KTHXBAI.

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