News Cycle

Want a quick lesson in journalism? Newspapers do the real work.

Want to know how I know? All it took was a mistake.

At the press conference today the cameras were again lined up to shoot the assistant attorney general as she gave the latest report. The Conway Daily Sun photographer and I showed up about 10 minutes early, long after all the television crews had set up.

One of the camera operators noticed us standing a bit behind everyone else. “You guys from the Conway Daily Sun?” he asked.

“Yes,” I said.

He smiled. “You guys are killing it with this story,” he said.

“Yeah,” said another guy, “we get all our news from you.”

But this post isn’t for me to boast. Actually, just the opposite. At 7:30 p.m. last night, after more than nine hours waiting for a body to come out of the pond, I took a closer look at the police log from the night before. Two men had been interviewed by police at the base of Cranmore ski area, right near where the body was found. One of them was the brother of the man Krista Dittmeyer had a child with. Suspicious, I thought, this has to go in the paper.

Had I been a bit more on top of it I would have noticed the reason police met the two men there: because they called police. But I didn’t, and the story I wrote said police stopped the two men, not that the two men asked police to come meet them.

Fast-forward to today, 6 p.m. The NBC affiliate in Portland announces two men were stopped by police at the base of the mountain, one of them the brother of the man Dittmeyer had a child with. A quick look by a fresh pair of eyes would have cleared this error up, but no one there gave it a look. They just read off my story.

My story wasn’t wrong, but it set the wrong tone about the two men. One wound up arrested on an unrelated warrant, and because I omitted the phone call they look bad.

I can admit it — I screwed up. It was a long day, and I miss read a report not meant for human consumption. At least I’m not the television station, however — their only excuse is that they didn’t check the facts they were reporting straight out of the newspaper (uncredited, I might add). Who screwed up there? Not one person, but their entire process of reporting.

I did what I can to make it right on my end. I wrote a new story that will run tomorrow. In it is says they made the phone call despite it leading to one of them getting arrested. I also include the criminal record of the man not arrested, so it isn’t all positive, but it certainly puts the two in a better light. It doesn’t provide all the answers, but it gives a clearer impression of what happened.

I’ll be interested to see if the television station will correct their mistake (they weren’t the only ones, by the way), or if they’ll just keep on rolling. We may be killing it, but I report for one paper. Everyone else would do well to do their own reporting.

Hot News, Sad Day

What a day today was. I spent most of the day in the Cranmore parking lot getting sunburnt, surrounded by television crews. Police found the body of 20-year-old Krista Dittmeyer in a pond at the base of the ski area this morning, putting an end to a multiday search. It took them until 6:30 p.m. to confirm they found her, and for much of the day people were very upset with us for reporting on Facebook that a body had been found. People thought we were being disrespectful of Dittmeyer’s family, or that we were jumping the gun and reporting things we didn’t know.

I knew there was a body in the pond at 9:15 a.m. I 100 percent knew it, a police officer confirmed it. For me there was no choice but report that as soon as possible.

I get paid to do what is essentially a public service: to keep the public informed. When I know something, and I know the information is good, it is my job to inform the public.

And yet it provoked anger, rage even.

On Saturday I posted on the Conway Daily Sun’s Facebook page that a 20-year-old Portland woman was missing, and that her baby had been left in the car. I got that information from a police officer, and I trusted it to be true. I put it on the Facebook page as soon as I could, not knowing how else I could get it out there (our next paper wasn’t until Tuesday).

For days since that first post people have begged for information. Each morning there were requests for. On Easter Sunday someone asked for an update before I was out of bed. As soon as I saw it I put a call in to the police station. There wasn’t any news, and right away I posted that on Facebook.

I would never have held information back then. I would welcome criticism if I did. But the same is true for bad news.

When I posted the police found a body I didn’t say it was Dittmeyer’s because I didn’t know. But I did say they found a body, because the fact is they had.

“But you didn’t know,” people might say, “no one confirmed there was a body.”

If the house in front of you is burning, yet the chief of police says it isn’t burning, what would you report? Confirmed or not by an official police spokesmen, I knew there was a body in that pond.

“Other news agencies aren’t reporting it yet, it must not be true!”

It’s true, other news agencies didn’t report it, but it was true. There was a body in that pond, and it was Krista Dittmeyer. It was true at 9:30 a.m. when I posted on Facebook they had found a body, and it was true at 6:30 p.m. when the assistant attorney general told the TV cameras it was Dittmeyer. I had good information, and just like when it was good news, I did not hesitate to give it directly over to the public. The Sun never said it was Dittmeyer before the assistant attorney general identified her, but the fact is from the start we were right on the body.

That wasn’t by chance. It was because of good, solid reporting by the Sun team. Official confirmation or not, we knew.

Only the day before I had a great lesson in this. For days no official source would say a thing about the father of Krista Dittmeyer’s baby. So I started digging. With the help of colleagues at the Sun and others around the community, I discovered a man named Kyle Acker was the father, and that he was in prison in Maine for selling drugs. When I approached official sources about this, they refused to comment, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s true. It went in the paper. We beat out every other news agency in the country with that information. That’s good reporting, and it was the TRUTH.

I take my job seriously. I do not publish information I believe to be incomplete or untrue, and I will not hold back information I believe the public wants to know. The community at large has been hungry for information about Dittmeyer since the start of the case. They celebrated us for giving it to them when they hoped she was alive; they can’t crucify us for doing the same thing now that she is dead.

If I can confirm it, out it goes, just like it did this morning.

Official sources are wonderful, but they can’t rule a journalist. When an official source wants to get information out they can, but what about when those sources want to hold back information?

That is when a journalist’s job actually begins. Retyping press releases isn’t reporting. Reporting is learning new facts and verifying statements, even if people don’t want you to know those facts or check their statements. The public is entitled to the TRUTH, even if it sucks. And they are entitled to it right away, without censorship or delay.

I do not fault the official sources — in this case the attorney general’s office or the Conway Police Department — for trying to keep a tight lid on this investigation. But just because they don’t hand me every fact on a platter doesn’t mean I should stop looking. Today I verified there was a body in the pond, and I put it out to the public. To do otherwise would be unethical.

Painful truth is still TRUTH, and verified facts are still facts. Reporters delve for truth and facts, instead of only publishing the easy story, should be celebrated, even if the truth is painful.

The Latest

Krista Dittmeyer has not turned up yet, but news about her baby’s father has. He is in jail for dealing drugs, something thus far that has been out of the news. It was only because of my colleagues’ longtime connections in the community that I was able to uncover who he was and what he was in prison for, but we beat the national media hovering over Conway. That feels good.

Now we’ll see where other community connections get me. I’ve been hearing a bunch of rumors that are tough to substantiate about what Dittmeyer was doing over here. I’ve got a few leads out there, and may have another interesting story by tomorrow night. This one is going to wind up on the Today Show, I guess, but I turned down the chance at an interview. I’ll just keep doing my job, and leave television to the television reporters.

Press Conference

Krista Dittmeyer has been missing for several days. The search for her began on Saturday after her 14-month-0ld daughter was discovered in her car parked in the parking lot of a local ski area. It’s become a bit of a media circus, but the Sun has tried to keep its coverage professional. Here is a short snipet from the Conway Police Department’s press conference:

Read the full story here.

The Fall of American Journalism

Can you guess how the CNN piece went?

I don’t see any value in sensationalism, and that’s what the program I was on was all about. I hung up after the first 15 minutes. Someone from the show called to say they’d lost the connection, and I explained I wasn’t familiar with the show beforehand, but having heard it I couldn’t take part in it. She said she understood, and asked me to explain it to the producer who had asked me on. So I did.

I am a 29-year-old reporter with global aspirations. CNN should be my endgoal. But giving up my commitment to quality reporting isn’t worth it; I would never go work for a program like the one that just had me on (however briefly).

This story is big news. It was on ABC’s Good Morning, and there were eight or 10 television cameras at the press conference this afternoon at the Conway Police Department. But it doesn’t need to be hyped. When one of the biggest names in news is doing the hyping you have to know something is wrong.

I work for a small community paper and contribute to New Hampshire Public Radio — both venues that don’t feel like the news has to be stretched to be valuable to the audience. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to compromise on that. Journalism isn’t just about making money. It’s also about keeping people informed. Scared is not informed. It is a disservice. I have no interest in trumpeting unknowns in order to attract an audience.

If that relegates me to the small-town paper, so be it, but if that is the case it’s a shame. If it takes sensationalism to make it mainstream than journalism is indeed doomed.

But that isn’t the case at all. The New York Times, Washington Post and NPR are consistently excellent news outlets. They play it straight, reporting the news as best they can. There is value in that. It is, in fact, one of the most valuable ingredients in democracy. It scares me what damage is done by the sensationalization of valuable information.

I really only have two things to say after this experience:

  1. Thank you New Hampshire Public Radio, which, when I asked if they were interested in the story said they don’t really cover crime in that way because it comes off as sensational. What a classy response!
  2. Thank you Lt. Chris Perley of the Conway Police Department. He handled repeated attempts to prod him into sensationalism with the utmost professionalism. Bravo.

It’s hard to see your profession let you down. I don’t intend to return the favor.

CNN Time

So I’ve been asked to go on CNN to talk about this 20-year-old woman who has disappeared. Her baby was found in her car, but she has been missing since Saturday morning.

The show I’m going on is a crime program, Headline News Nancy Grace. It’s a little interesting to be on a show like this. Missing women is not the type of news I normally report on. But her family wants as much media attention as possible in hopes of finding this woman, so I figure I can go on and give as straight a story as possible. We’ll see how it goes…

Two More Gone

Late last year it was Joao Silva getting his legs blown off in Afghanistan, and now it’s Tim Hetherington and Chris Hondros, two photographers killed in Libya covering the civil war.

Hetherington’s death has received most of the press because he was the director of Restrepo, the award-nominated documentary about a year in the Korengal Valley of Afghanistan. I just posted my thoughts on the movie, and here it is days later he’s dead.

I went to Hondros’ website and clicked through to some of the links showing his images. It’s amazing to catch a glimpse into war so like and unlike what I saw.

People have to go where bad things happen, or else they happen in silence. It is terrifying what can happen to you as a reporter in these places, but not nearly as terrifying as what is happening there already.

I’m not a religious person, but I will take a moment of silence to remember these two men. They weren’t able to stop war by covering it, but they refused to let death go unnoticed. They deserve our thanks.

More Libya

This is a fantastic written account similar to the one I heard in person two weeks ago from David Rohde. It’s hard to figure out just what the right balance is. The story is not worth dying for, not worth putting others in danger or hurting your family for. But the story has to get out there, and it needs people like these to tell it. I’m not sure what that means in the end. Be careful, I guess, and find stories worth telling. Especially in war.

When Does The Reporter Matter?

I had a great discussion today about when it is appropriate for a reporter to share their perspective and when it isn’t, and what gets lost in the middle.

Have you seen Restrepo? I watched it before I went to Iraq. I knew what I would be going to do would be far different, but it was eye-opening and daunting to see just a month before my trip.

But ultimately it was disappointing. I didn’t think it told the story as powerfully as I expected. In a few weeks of covering war reporters send back stories about firefights and death. After a year with these soldiers I was expecting an opus. In that respect the film fell flat.

Now I haven’t read War, the book-version of the movie. Perhaps the written word caught what the video couldn’t.

I did, however, read The Forever War, an immensely powerful book that floored me page by page. It isn’t an opinion-free report from the front lines. It is full of emotion, and deadness inside, that tells a different story than the battlefield reports.

Is that what reporters are supposed to do? Are they supposed to give you the feel of the place, or just report the facts? What I came back from Iraq with was far more in depth than what made it into my radio reports. This blog, in fact, got more of a taste of what the real Iraq (that I saw, and as I understood it) was.

I guess that’s what I expect from the best reporting, but it isn’t something I yet feel comfortable doing. This American Life, for example, gets beyond what the story is into its meaning. The best reporting by The New York Times or The New Yorker does too. But that isn’t something reporters can take lightly. To get beyond the facts, so people can understand the story, is not easy. It isn’t everyday journalism. It’s far too easy to become partisan at that point, to tell the story from a liberal or conservative viewpoint that in fact does no one any good. But that’s what real journalism does — it takes the reader, viewer, listener to whatever the story is and really brings them it. It helps them to understand what it is they are learning, and what it really means.

I think about all the stories I read and saw and heard about Iraq before I went there, and about how little I understood when I landed. That was because too much of the journalism world is about the simple facts, instead of delving into the complex ones. Complexity doesn’t fit well into a half-hour news cast, but it is the way of the world. It is what reporters must tackle, and at the same time do it fairly.

It’s a documentarian perspective, brought to the mainstream. Don’t just tell people. Help them understand.

One More Vote

Last night was the town election for Conway, and today was the final day (hopefully) of reporting on an event that have ebbed and flowed for more than two months. I’m looking forward to the opportunity to cover something else.

I got a call today from what sounded like an older woman. “I hope you’re proud of yourself for what you put in the paper,” she said. “You probably got fired from your last job.” Then she hung up.

I’m not really sure which story that call was in reference to, but I have a couple ideas. I ran all the candidates’ names through the court system and came out with a couple who had criminal records. I called both men and gave them a chance to explain what happened. One didn’t seem to care, but the other freaked. “How can you do this?” he said. “Are you trying to hurt me?” I heard from some people around town that he was not happy with the story in the paper, and that he felt like I shouldn’t have written it.

Normally I wouldn’t have much sympathy for that — if you don’t want your record examined don’t run for public office. But this guy really was driven to get this position, even though he was not likely to win at all. It was one of those cases when I could feel for the guy, but I wasn’t about to do anything different.

I’ve become used to criticism as a reporter. I’ve written a number of stories people don’t like. When I used to work at the Reporter, everyone had my cell phone number. I’d get calls at home from angry politician unhappy with how I wrote about them. At least now those calls go to the office.

I can hear that criticism, and I don’t mind airing it in public. I would have encouraged the woman to write a letter to the editor blasting me for the story, had she only stayed on the phone long enough for me to respond.

But she didn’t. Elections do that. They fire people up and get them breathing hard. And then I stand in their way for a quote. I can’t expect not to gett spit on once in a while. I’m just happy it only comes once a year…