Tuesday, August 7, 2007

When Water And Tempers Attack

This isn't one of those TV shows with goats attacking farmers (although I really do LIKE those shows...); this is the tale of how news is made and what role relationships play in what you read, hear and watch in the news.

This is the tale of the water leak in the Lock 3 garage city museum. About 15 minutes of spraying discovered Wednesday evening, fire department called, water shutoff, and today cleanup. Some photos from the Lighter Than Air Society need to be dried out along with other stuff. We thought it was interesting so we pursued with City Hall.

Our call went to Dave Lieberth, the deputy mayor who's taken a strong personal and managerial interest in Lock 3. He's also one of Akron's unofficial historians, and a great resource on the city. Reporter Marcy Pappafava caught him on his cellphone, and told the newsroom he told her he was in a meeting and abruptly hung up.

The abrupt part is pretty well recognized as Dave's manner on occasion, but the hanging up isn't. She was pretty specific about it and felt it was rude; we dispatched her to Lock 3 to just see for herself what was going on without having to wait for Dave. She did, noting folks there at Lock 3 were wary of talking without permission and wouldn't allow her to record them. She relayed her story to Larry States who posted it for broadcast and on AkronNewsNow; I added the editor's note she sought more information and was hung up on.

Why? Because the personality of the news sometimes plays a role in collecting what you read, listen to and watch.

Dave called later this afternoon and was not a happy camper. He wasn't abrupt but felt strongly he hadn't been rude and had returned Marcy's call at the earliest opportunity. He got her voice mail, not unusual since Marcy works early in the morning and leaves after 1p. In this case she went home after phoning in her report.

Dave clearly felt cheap shot in the editor's note even though I didn't name him specifically; he disputed the assertion he'd been rude and I replied the recipient took his response otherwise. I think it is fair to note all of this because explaining with a degree of transparency of just how the news gets gathered is important.

I know the journalist purists think none of this belongs in the public arena; I respectfully disagree. The times, they are a changin' and the bulldozer called the Internet makes everyone a reporter, everyone an editor and everyone a news consumer in new ways.

Akron news gathering tends to be dominated by official speak; the media talks with official-dom, the establishment, and sometimes follows up with alternate views. The Mayor can be rough and tumble with us -- ask John Higgins of the Beacon Journal, Larry States of WAKR, or Eric Mansfield of WKYC about being on the receiving end of some of those broadsides. Eric, in particular, has been very open in his blog about the process he goes through in reporting Akron/Canton's news.

Personality matters in this town and in this case I made an editorial decision to open up the process, given what we felt was the unusual treatment of gathering facts for what was, in the long haul, an interesting but not drop-the-presses story. Should we hold our tongues over the back-end of stories, reserved just for reporter's boozy mixers or small talk before news conferences?

Should we be more open about the personalities in the news, including ourselves? It does play a role in many of the stories you see; the relationship between the Mayor and federal judges definitely colored the handling of the recent Seiberling Building flap; personalities boiled over to front page news when Plusquellic slammed the other Don, Cuyahoga Falls' Robart, a few years ago; whenever Democrats talk about Alex Arshinkoff or Republicans talk about Wayne Jones there's definately the strong current of personality at play here.

There's the background of today's reporting soap opera; today's use of blogs to go "behind the curtain" allows us to explain and report in new ways we didn't have available before. Just look at other blogs on this site, or the comments sections on just about every media and community site on the web these days. You even have the fun of joining the fray -- isn't that the full measure of a democratic and open society?

What do you think?

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