Including ex-Blade worker in series was the right call

Christy Mesaros-Winckles had an ethical question about the newspaper’s Oct. 30- Nov. 1 series on the Great Recession.

“First, I want The Blade to know that their series on the Great Recession has been some of the best writing I’ve seen in The Blade in recent memory. However, I do have one ethics concern.”

Here’s what bothered her: The couple featured prominently in the opening story were Greg and Colleen Ball, who lost their jobs because of medical conditions and have struggled desperately ever since.

What made the reader uncomfortable, however, was that Greg Ball is a former Blade employee. He was a production worker for the newspaper for 16 years. Unfortunately, about three years ago, he went on sick leave because of a degenerative spinal disease.

Eventually, after his sick leave pay ran out, a company doctor evaluated him and said he could no longer do his job, at which point Mr. Ball went on unemployment and applied for disability insurance through Social Security.

“Couldn’t the news staff have looked a bit longer and found a family with no connection to the paper?” asked Ms. Mesaros-Winckles, who is working on a doctorate in communications at Bowling Green State University.

“When the newspaper paints such a bleak picture of [a former employee’s] existence it almost seems cruel.”

Asked for a response, Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said “We did not choose to focus on the Ball family because Mr. Ball was a former Blade employee.

“We didn’t find that out until after our initial interview and after we decided he would fit into the series.”

Frankly, your ombudsman thinks the newspaper deserves a good deal of praise for including the Ball family. Some papers wouldn’t have done so, out of fear it would make them look bad.

But this series was meant to be an honest look at deepening poverty in this region — and a large part of the story is that people are now in desperate shape who never dreamed they’d have financial troubles. Mr. Murray told me the question of whether to include the family was intensely discussed by the editors. “We knew even though The Blade had nothing to do with his unemployment the newspaper would be criticized by some for his financial problems.”

Still, Mr. Murray said, “I felt strongly that it was important to include the Balls in our series if they were willing to participate and felt strongly we should be transparent about Mr. Ball’s former employment at the newspaper.”

Your ombudsman couldn’t agree more. Two other points worth noting: First, The Blade would not have written about the Balls if they had not been fully willing for the newspaper to do so.

And it isn’t surprising that the reporters and editors didn’t know at first that Mr. Ball had worked for The Blade. Editorial and production workers very seldom meet at most large newspapers.

Mike Sawyer, a co-owner of Universal Metals in Toledo, is puzzled and bothered by a detail in the continuing coverage of the horrific killings of Johnny Clarke and Lisa Straub on Jan. 31.

He notes that in a recent story about the arrest of a second suspect in the case, we refer to the man, Cameo Pettaway, as “Mr. Pettaway,” whereas Johnny Clarke, on second reference, is just “Clarke.” He asks, “Why didn’t you call him Mr. Clarke?”

Your ombudsman agrees with the reader. I think this is an unfair, outmoded, and confusing policy, and needs to be modified or changed. Johnny Clarke was in fact convicted of two charges of robbery three years before he died, and served a year and a half in prison. Denying him the “Mr.” might make sense in a story about his crime, which involved robbing men at gunpoint. But in this case, he had cleaned up his act, and was a victim of a murder.

I do not think it is fair to stigmatize him without explanation, especially in stories in which he was clearly a victim.

Phil Bontrager, an Archbold reader, wasn’t happy that the paper didn’t cover the Archbold girls soccer regional semifinal game on Nov. 2.

Unfortunately, no paper is able to cover as many games as it would like, or even as it once did. However, the editors tell me The Blade will cover Archbold any time one of its teams makes it to the state championship level. So, go, Blue Streaks!

This column was originally published in the Toledo Blade on Nov.  13, 2011.

Comments are closed.