Checking politicians’ facts

In its new project in political reporting, The Anniston Star will regularly investigate the claims and charges of candidates for local and statewide offices this election year. Are the statements made on the campaign trail and on TV ads true? Star editors and writers will rate the statements on a scale of 0 to 5, with five being completely true.

Campaign claims by Robert Bentley and Bradley Byrne during Alabama’s Republican runoff for governor were analyzed in a front-page article by Daniel Gaddy on July 10.

The first review of statements by Democrat Ron Sparks and Republican Bentley, nominees for governor in the general election, appeared July 29, when the rating system was introduced in two articles by Gaddy.

Since The Star closed its Montgomery bureau, the paper has made little effort to cover statewide elections other than reporting appearances by candidates in this area and publishing Associated Press stories. This new approach should make a real contribution to area voters’ understanding of the issues.

In the July 29 stories, Sparks’ campaign spokesman commented on the issues raised. The article said The Star couldn’t reach Bentley’s staff. The story should have been held until the Bentley campaign had the same opportunity of comment.

Fairness in reporting

In his July 25 column, Star Editor Bob Davis wrote, “…credibility in what we publish is the gold standard.” The Star works hard to ensure that the facts it reports are accurate. There are other aspects to credibility. Is the information presented fairly? Does it reflect the views and actions of all parties involved?

Fairness can be difficult. All the information may be coming from one party. How can the article be fair to other parties? It is not enough to report, as The Star too often does, that other interested parties “were not available.” Sometimes the story can be delayed while the reporter seeks additional information, or there can be later stories providing balance to the coverage.

The Star published a front-page story headlined, “Local Vietnam veteran drummed out of VFW.” The 25-inch story described how Ken Rollins, a local leader of the Vietnam Veterans of America and a member of the Alabama Board of Veterans Affairs, was suspended for life from the Veterans of Foreign Wars by the Alabama VFW. The charges against Rollins were discussed by his supporters and denied by Rollins.

The article, by Laura Camper, provided a strong picture of an injustice done to a prominent local man. Presumably the facts given are accurate, although the article gave no indication that The Star reviewed documents about the charges or the hearings. The VFW is a respected veterans organization. What does it say about all this? Well, the article reported, “The state office of Veterans of Foreign Wars did not return phone calls about the disciplinary action” (July 9, 1A).

The VFW hearings about Rollins were held in February and May. This was hardly a breaking news story that had to be published that day. Given a few days and some effort, it is highly probable that VFW officials could be contacted.

Star sports writers wrote two articles about sports agents from the Southeastern Conference Media Days in Hoover. They included comments by Alabama Coach Nick Saban about “rogue agents” and “pimps” (July 22, 1B; July 23, 1B). The Star followed with “The story’s other side,” by Michael Casagrande, about a sports agent who is working to improve “the incredibly flawed system….” It rounded out the coverage (July 25, 1C).

Story needed facts

“Golf course not bringing in the green,” by Camper, noted the problems of the Cane Creek Golf Course at McClellan (July 8, 1A). It’s an interesting story, but too much information was left out.

It was reported that Cane Creek costs the city of Anniston $184,000 a year. This is what percent of the total budget of the Parks and Recreation Department? How much does it cost to operate the golf course? The story quoted some players as complaining about increased rates, but readers were not told how much was the increase, what are the present rates and how they compare with rates at five other public golf courses in the area.

Some fine stories in July:

• The July 4th edition. It is hard to find a fresh way to observe our national holiday. The Star did it well, using interviews with 10 foreign-born residents and contributions by Star readers, by Tim Lockette and others.

• “Law sets out municipal lines of authority,” a useful analysis of who has authority to do what in Anniston’s unique form of city manager government, by Camper (July 13, 1A).

• “His brother’s keeper,” a poignant, courageous story about a little boy with a rare disease and a possible cure through his little brother, by Brett Buckner, photos by Trent Penny (July 25, 1C).

This column was originally published in the Anniston Star on July 30, 2010.

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