Readers Revolt: Get Mad, Write a 142-page Report
| American Journalism Review
| From AJR, October 2000|
Readers Revolt: Get Mad, Write a 142-page Report
Pennsylvania residents, upset at their local paper, compile a 142-page report outlining their complaints.
By Natalie Pompilio
Natalie Pompilio is a reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer.
I T'S NOT UNUSUAL to hear people gripe about their hometown newspaper. Sometimes, they'll go so far as to write a letter to the editor or air their complaints on a local radio show. But how often do you find a group of citizens so unhappy with their news coverage that they're willing to spend their own time and money to prepare and distribute a 142-page report detailing what they think the newspaper is doing wrong?
Welcome to Towanda, Pennsylvania. Here 10 readers decided they didn't like what they were seeing in their local paper, the Daily Review, which serves about 8,800, primarily in Bradford County in the northeastern part of the state. They came together as a group, Citizens for Press Responsibility at The Daily Review, in March and released their analysis of the paper's ethics in June. Among the citizens' conclusions: The paper has rewritten letters to the editor and news releases so as to change meaning and accuracy; has practiced biased reporting; has engaged in "police blotter" journalism by printing lurid details of crimes; and, they claim, has routinely plagiarized material.
Copies of the report were sent to libraries, political offices, school superintendents and local media. They've since made their way to coffee shops and meeting places, and Bradford County, population 62,000, has been talking.
"We've been getting nothing but kudos from the local community," committee member Clark Moeller says. "There's a community conversation.... That will lead to the understanding that the paper is not trustworthy, and people who deal with the paper will proceed with a greater degree of caution. 'Buyer Beware' is now more clearly printed on the product." Moeller, who is retired, has written columns for the Review and has complained about its reluctance to publish his letters to the editor in the past.
When reached by AJR, Publisher James Towner said he would prefer that a seven-page letter sent to each of the committee's members by the Daily Review's attorney serve as the newspaper's response. In the letter, Towanda attorney Ray DePaola calls the committee's conclusions, which it says were based on the ethical standards of the Society of Professional Journalists, "legally improper." (He also subtly disparages the organization, noting that SPJ's code of ethics only applies to its paid members and "for $35.00 any high school student can join.") The committee's report, he says, is inaccurate and potentially libelous.
Some of the allegations do seem too harsh. Articles the citizens say are examples of plagiarism are often Associated Press stories fattened up with local details and given the generic byline "By The Review." The wording from a press release by the Bradford County Conservation District on a plan to improve dirt roads in the area is liberally used in the resulting news brief that appears in the Review. This may be a case of reporter laziness, but to call it plagiarism goes too far.
Other complaints seem to have more merit. The committee provided numerous examples of citizens' letters to the editor that included negative comments about the paper. When these letters appeared in the Daily Review, the criticism had been cut out. In other letters, a comparison between the original and the published version shows that editing has altered the meaning or intention. DePaola says that "the Review, like any newspaper, reserves the right to edit letters and news releases. The Review takes great care not to change the meaning of submitted materials."
Then there's a healthy share of "he said/she said." In one instance, the Daily Review published a front-page story on a local charity involved in legal squabblings with the American Cancer Society. The article and headline state that the group is planning to countersue the ACS. The charity complained to the paper, saying it was not countersuing, but defending itself against an earlier suit. Its press release on the subject made that clear. The Review ran a clarification of the story, but one that strongly suggested the error originated with the charity. The citizens cite this case as an example of the Review's dishonesty and desire to create controversy.
But DePaola says the story accurately portrayed the facts as told to the Review's reporter. "[Y]our comment makes the assumption that it was the Review that was dishonest and unethical. The Review stands by its report," he writes.
Committee members have contacted the Review's managing editor, Ian Fennell, and publisher on past occasions, complaining about edited letters to the editor and such. In some cases, the Review has then published the letter in its entirety or the missing parts. But, at the very least, correspondence between the committee and the Review reveals an antagonistic relationship. On one side, the citizens are on high alert, ultrasensitive and quick to judge. On the other, the newspaper is defensive and, at times, sarcastic. Despite claims to the contrary, it seems unwilling to take any of the committee's claims seriously.
Committee members--who include three engineers, a computer scientist, two small-business owners and three homemakers--have thus far invested about $3,000 in the project and are willing to open their wallets again. The committee recently printed an additional 300 copies of the report and distributed a 21-page response to DePaola's letter. Members are collecting signatures on a petition that asks the Daily Review's owner, the Times-Shamrock Group, to step in and "reestablish the integrity of the paper." Their goal is simply to have a reliable paper. Committee members believe their efforts will be protected under the First Amendment "just like the paper as long as we speak the truth," Moeller says.
But the newspaper maintains the committee has not told the truth. In his letter, DePaola advises that "if publication and dissemination of your document results in any injury to the Review, immediate and appropriate legal action will be instituted against your Committee and you personally, as a member."
Moeller says those words initially frightened some members. The group had chosen not to incorporate or get liability insurance. But after a long meeting on the topic, it has come together stronger than ever.
"The group is not scared," Moeller says. "A lot of people are very apprehensive about going public against the Daily Review, but there are enough of us that feel the paper can't hurt us personally, and we're aggravated by what we're seeing."###
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