How an escapade on a frozen pond led one newspaper to reform its crime coverage

Photos (cc) 2022 by Dan Kennedy

One February day in 2020, an obituary caught Paul Cuno-Booth’s eye. At that time the police and courts reporter for The Keene Sentinel in rural western New Hampshire, Cuno-Booth had two years earlier written about one of those wacky incidents that editors and readers love.

A 47-year-old woman had driven out onto the ice on a pond, doing donuts, knocking over fishermen’s equipment and leading police on a slow-motion chase, throwing things out of her window as she drove. She was arrested and charged with criminal mischief and disobeying an officer.

Now, reading her obit, he learned more about the woman who’d been arrested on the ice that day. She’d had surgery for a brain tumor in 2016. She’d worked with mentally disabled people. She was a triathlete. Hers was a deep, well-rounded life, and the Sentinel’s story had reduced her to a caricature for the entertainment of its readers.

Cuno-Booth and others at the Sentinel started talking about how they could cover criminal justice in a way that reflected the complexities of the people they were writing about — people who were, in many cases, suffering from substance abuse, trauma and poverty. Crime coverage at the Sentinel, he said, was typical of most papers, consisting of “a lot of quick-hit articles,” press releases from the police, “not a lot of reporting, not a lot of context.” They decided they needed to make some changes. But where to begin?

From Cuno-Booth’s slideshow

Cuno-Booth described the Sentinel’s dilemma and the steps that it took to improve its coverage at the Radically Rural conference last week in Keene, New Hampshire. Sponsored by the Sentinel and the Hannah Grimes Center for Entrepreneurship, the conference, now in its fifth year, featured panels on agriculture, housing, the environment and community journalism. Ellen Clegg and I interviewed the Sentinel’s president and COO, Terry Williams, on the “What Works” podcast a few weeks ago.

Cuno-Booth said he left the Sentinel but stayed in touch with the paper; he’s now a freelancer, working with New Hampshire Public Radio and other outlets. The paper’s crime coverage, he told the audience, was reoriented with the help of Kelly McBride, an ethics specialist at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Essentially, it came down to being more deliberate — individual crimes would not be reported unless the paper was prepared to follow them all the way through the court system, which immediately ruled out minor offenses. They’d look for trends rather than writing about, for instance, an 18-year-old picked up on an alcohol violation. They’d give people a chance to have stories about their earlier misdeeds be removed from Google search, although they’d remain in the Sentinel’s archives — a step taken by a number of news organizations in recent years, including The Boston Globe. Mug shots would rarely be published.

“I think it’s still very much a work in progress,” Cuno-Booth said. Nevertheless, that one moment of infamy for a troubled woman in 2018 has led to some significant changes in the way that the Sentinel covers crime and serves its community.

What, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story on SCOTUS and masks?

Nina Totenberg. Photo (cc) 2012 by the Asia Society.

It’s impossible to know what, if anything, went wrong with Nina Totenberg’s story about a mask dispute between Supreme Court Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Neil Gorsuch without also knowing the details of Totenberg’s interactions with her unnamed sources — or source.

But it has the hallmarks of a situation in which the justices, joined by Chief Justice John Roberts, jumped on a small wording problem in order to back away from a controversy they regretted. Totenberg, NPR’s veteran legal affairs reporter, was the collateral damage.

It began with a report last Tuesday morning in which Totenberg noted that, since the rise of omicron, all of the justices had been wearing masks to hearings — all, that is, except Gorsuch. Sotomayor, who has diabetes and who normally sits next to Gorsuch, had been appearing remotely from her office.

Roberts, Totenberg reported, had “in some form asked the other justices to mask up,” and only Gorsuch had failed to comply.

The next day came this, also under Totenberg’s byline:

On Wednesday, Sotomayor and Gorsuch issued a statement saying that she did not ask him to wear a mask. NPR’s report did not say that she did. Then, the chief justice issued a statement saying he “did not request Justice Gorsuch or any other justice to wear a mask on the bench.” The NPR report said the chief justice’s ask to the justices had come “in some form.”

NPR stands by its reporting.

So what did Roberts actually say? We don’t know. NPR’s ombudsman, Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute, wrote that Totenberg remained confident she got it right but was hazy on exactly how Roberts indicated to the other justices that he wanted them to wear masks. “If I knew exactly how he communicated this I would say it,” Totenberg told  McBride. “Instead I said ‘in some form.’”

McBride’s conclusion was that Totenberg’s story was essentially accurate but that she shouldn’t have used the word “asked,” even modified by “in some form.” McBride also called for a “clarification,” but not a correction, to be appended to Totenberg’s story. Which in turn led Totenberg to tell The Daily Beast, “She [McBride] can write any goddamn thing she wants, whether or not I think it’s true. She’s not clarifying anything!”

The situation reminds me of the smackdown delivered by then-special counsel Robert Mueller in early 2019 after BuzzFeed News reported that former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen had told investigators that Donald Trump had “directed” him to lie under oath before Congress about a Trump Tower deal in Moscow. Mueller had his spokesman characterize the story as “not accurate,” and the episode was seen as a serious blunder by BuzzFeed.

Lo and behold, several months later we learned that BuzzFeed had it right all along. If I may speculate, it looked to me like Mueller took advantage of a minor exaggeration in the story in order to denounce the whole thing at a moment when it looked like Trump might shut down the entire special counsel’s investigation. BuzzFeed was thrown under the bus, and the investigation was saved.

Totenberg’s story was the culmination of an eventful few weeks for Justice Sotomayor. On Jan. 8, Washington Post “Fact Check” columnist Glenn Kessler took her to task for saying during oral arguments, “We have over 100,000 children, which we’ve never had before, in serious condition and many on ventilators.” That number appeared to be 20 times higher than was actually the case. Kessler saw fit to assign her statement a “Four Pinocchios” rating, thus labeling what was almost certainly a spontaneous slip-up as a lie.

At around the same time, Politico’s “Playbook” newsletter ran a story and a photo showing a woman who was identified as Sotomayor sitting back-to at a restaurant with Democratic members of Congress. O, the hypocrisy! Except that it wasn’t Sotomayor — it was Senate Majority Leader Chuck Shumer’s wife, Iris Weinshall. “Our tipster got it wrong, but we should have double-checked,” Politico said in its correction. No kidding.

As for whether and how Chief Justice Roberts asked “in some form” that the justices mask up, we’ll probably never know precisely what transpired. But we do know this: Every justice has been wearing a mask to oral arguments except Gorsuch. And Sotomayor didn’t feel it was safe for her to attend.

NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

A Vermont newspaper dispute raises questions over nonprofit ethics

Meeting house in Charlotte, Vermont. Photo (cc) 2018 by Nicholas Erwin.

The Vermont nonprofit VTDigger has a fascinating story about another nonprofit, The Charlotte News. Although it’s not entirely clear what happened, James Finn reports that the editor departed after the publisher and the volunteer board apparently tried to interfere with her coverage.

There are some big names involved in the controversy, including high-profile journalists who quit the board in support of the former editor, Chea Waters Evans. There’s also a discussion about new ethical dilemmas that have arisen as more and more community journalism is being provided by nonprofits. Poynter’s ubiquitous Kelly McBride weighs in.

All worthwhile topics, of course. But I have to wonder if these people ever worked for a small paper. A publisher who meddles in coverage? Pass the smelling salts! Anyone who’s ever had a story killed so as not to offend an advertiser (and yes, I have) will probably roll their eyes over this.

Still, it sounds like a good, dedicated editor-reporter was pushed into resigning when she should have been given a raise. I hope this is resolved so she can come back.

With Trump gone and his allies in revolt, what’s next for the media?

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston

Previously published at GBH News.

Throughout Donald Trump’s presidency, his detractors have complained bitterly that he was being enabled, or “normalized,” by the mainstream media. For the extremely online Resistance in particular, Twitter became a place to rail against the press for failing to point out that Trump’s every utterance, gesture and action was an outrage against decency and a threat to the republic.

“Trump has been at war with an unraveling America for years,” wrote the liberal press critic Eric Boehlert a day after Trump supporters staged a deadly riot inside the Capitol. “The parallel reality has been that the American press corps has not figured out how to deal with that frightening scenario. It hasn’t properly grappled with the idea that our commander-in-chief would purposefully try to harm America’s security and undo its democratic traditions.”

Boehlert’s not wrong. A year into Trump’s presidency, I took The New York Times to task for what I saw as its overly passive, both-sides approach, which I contrasted with The Washington Post’s sure-footedness.

And yet I find that I’ve grown impatient with these complaints, mainly because I can’t see how a different, harsher approach would have changed the course of the last four years. Never mind the 2016 campaign, which was a travesty of anti-Hillary Clinton bias that helped propel Trump into office. Overall, mainstream coverage of Trump’s time in the White House has been good enough, which is the most we can expect of a diverse, flawed institution.

Trump has been historically unpopular, yet a weirdly large minority continues to say he’s doing a good job no matter what. Take FiveThirtyEight’s average of approval ratings. The Battle of Capitol Hill sent Trump’s ratings sharply downward. But as of Tuesday afternoon, he was still at nearly 41% — pretty much where he always is.

Politically, at least, the story of the Trump years has been simple: He’s detested by a majority of the public, and they voted him out by a decisive margin the first chance they got. Explaining this isn’t rocket science.

Does anyone really believe that the mainstream media haven’t been largely negative in their coverage? Yes, there have been moments when The Times has been overly deferential, as befits a news organization that still thinks of itself as the nation’s paper of record and the presidency as an august institution. But investigative reporting by The Times, The Post and The Wall Street Journal have kept Trump back on his heels continuously for the past four years.

There have been a few exceptions — The Times on occasion and, sadly, NPR consistently. All too often I’ve turned on NPR and thought President George H.W. Bush was still in office and that the Democrats were working to stymie his legislative agenda. Last fall, NPR’s mild-mannered public editor, Kelly McBride, went so far as to complain that “there are moments, like the coverage of the first presidential debate, when NPR’s presentation is so understated that some in the audience feel they’ve been handed a distorted picture.” No kidding.

And yet another public media outlet that I had long criticized as a bastion of false equivalence, the “PBS NewsHour,” somehow managed to find its voice during the Trump presidency. Anchor Judy Woodruff, White House reporter Yamiche Alcindor and congressional reporter Lisa Desjardins rose to the moment, chronicling each day’s events with a calm but pointed devotion to seeking the truth and reporting it.

Through the Mueller investigation, Ukraine, impeachment, COVID-19, Trump’s blizzard of lies about the election results and now what looks very much like a failed coup attempt, mainstream coverage has, for the most part, been appropriately critical.

The one massive media failure has been something the mainstream can’t do anything about — the weaponized pro-Trump propaganda put out every day and night by Fox News, which more than anything has kept Trump’s approval rating from cratering. Fox now seems determined to get its mojo back after losing some of its audience to the likes of Newsmax and OANN, as it has switched from news to opinion at 7 p.m.

And let’s not overlook the role of Facebook and Twitter in amplifying Trumpist lies — a role with which the social-media giants are now rather ineptly coming to grips.

Longtime media observer Jay Rosen of New York University recently gave the media some credit for asserting themselves in recent months and warned that a slide back into the old paradigm of giving weight and authority to both political parties would prove disastrous.

“Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back,” he wrote, adding that the press “will have to find a way to become pro-truth, pro-voting, anti-racist and aggressively pro-democracy. It will have to cast its lot with those in both parties who are reality-based. It will have to learn to distinguish bad actors with propagandistic intent from normal speakers making their case.”

The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon — pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone and the exceedingly normal President-elect Joe Biden takes his place.

As for whether the media are up to the challenge, I think we ought to take heart from the Trump era. Much of the press did what it could to hold Trump accountable and to shine a light on his repulsive words and actions. I’m hopeful that they’ll bring the same energy and sense of mission to covering whatever is coming next.