Star did its job fairly

A sensitive and complex story reported by The Star in April concerned a brief video showing Calhoun County Sheriff Larry Amerson using manual force on a restrained person (March 31, Page 1A). Seven additional articles followed, all by Cameron Steele (May 1 through May 7).

There was criticism of The Star’s coverage by the sheriff and by several readers. Star Editor Bob Davis defended the paper’s reporting in his column (April 3, 3E).

The video was provided to The Star by a “source requesting anonymity.” Newspapers avoid anonymous source stories when possible. When a paper uses such information, it usually tells the readers why the source didn’t want to be identified and provides some information about the source. The Star did none of this in this story.

Davis wrote in his column, “…[I]n our judgment, the video in question stood alone as a moment in time, regardless of its source.” The judgment was sound. The video was newsworthy regardless of the credibility or the motives of the anonymous source.

Alabama law seeks to protect juveniles from public identification. Amerson said The Star was placing itself “above the law” by showing the face of the other person involved in the video, a juvenile. On this point, you can judge for yourself by viewing the video on The Star’s website. The Star digitally altered the face in the video. Can you see the person clearly enough to identify him? I could not.

Lindsey Gilliam, director of Family Links, a social agency that works closely with the sheriff’s office, told The Star, “I think the sheriff is being cast in a negative light.” She may be right. The repetition of the details shown in the video in story after story may create a negative impression.

However, the May 1 article was a clear effort to show fairness. It included a series of favorable character references about Amerson by people who know him and have worked closely with him. The sheriff did not talk freely with the media to provide his side of the incident because of possible litigation in the case.

Did The Star have to report the details of the video in every story? Maybe not, but journalists are trained to write each story as complete, because some readers have not read the previous articles.

Readers James Mink of Heflin and Thomas Bryant of Weaver were right in their letters to Speak Out. Mink wrote that, “The video clip that everyone saw is not the whole story, it is only a small glimpse of what happened.” Wrote Bryant, “… [W]e have not heard ‘the rest of the story.’”

A newspaper can only publish what it can find out. It can’t hold the story for weeks or months until “the rest of the story” is available.  In covering this story, The Star did its job as fairly as it could.

More detail needed

Two stories in April reported efforts by members of the board of trustees of the retirement fund for Anniston police officers and firefighters to work with the Anniston City Council to resolve the financial problems of the fund (April 14 and 22, both 1A).

The stories, by Steele, included much information about the fund’s finances, but told readers little about how the fund operates. How many members serve on its board of trustees? How are they selected? Who makes investment decisions?

As mentioned above, it is standard practice for one story on a subject to include information from an earlier story so readers are up to date. The April 22 story quoted eight paragraphs from the April 14 story verbatim, a questionable way of providing background.

Name the reporter

The slander suit by Anniston resident Curtis Ray against Anniston Mayor Gene Robinson over an alleged Robinson remark was tried and ended in a not-guilty jury verdict (April 19, 20, 21 and 22). The stories, by Laura Johnson and Laura Camper, provided good trial coverage. The pre-story, April 19, which summarized the background of the case, did not mention a key point in Robinson’s defense, that he now denies making the remark to a Star reporter about “black corruption,” which led to the suit. The second story, April 20, reported that Robinson filed an affidavit in December 2010 denying making the remark.

The trial included numerous references to the former Star reporter who wrote the original story quoting Robinson’s comment. But, oddly, the reporter was never named. In his column after the trial, Editor Davis mentioned the reporter by name, Megan Nichols, and said he had recently exchanged e-mails with her (April 24, 3E). Why was her name never mentioned during the trial coverage? Was there some sort of legal problem?

This column was originally published in The Anniston Star in May, 2011.
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