Pending further investigation
The Cavalier Daily’s recent coverage of Occupy Charlottesville has been appropriate, but could have benefited from further research
"I HOLD the press responsible to discern the truthful qualities of [this] expression and to not just report gossip, especially when it is concocted."
That is an interesting statement from a member of a group formed to - among other things - oppose corporate influence in politics and public debate, but it was in a letter to the editor ("Getting the whole picture," Nov. 15) from Zac Fabian, a University alumnus who describes himself as a member of Occupy Charlottesville.
Is Fabian willing to turn over the power of deciding what is true and what is not to the corporate-dominated media? Should reporters be charged with making that decision on their own, or should they act more as grand juries, collecting evidence that editors then can use to declare a verdict?
Fabian was upset about a story that ran in The Cavalier Daily ("Protesters face internal conflict," Nov. 14) that explored complaints a former Occupy Charlottesville member had made against the group. Evan Knappenberger, described in the article as "an Albemarle High School graduate and Iraq War veteran," claimed that the movement was degenerating into "radical sub-elements," according to a statement he issued that was quoted in the article. Knappenberger went on to say that "many of the mature people" had already left Occupy Charlottesville, a group that began as open and since has become "secretive … more of a front for people with agendas."
Reporters and editors are constantly making decisions about what to cover and how to cover it. There are only so many hours in a day and only so many pages in a newspaper. If Knappenberger had told a reporter his opinions about Occupy Charlottesville, that reporter might have checked them out, decided they were bunk, passed that information on to his editor and moved on. But The Daily Progress had written about trouble inside Occupy Charlottesville ("Occupy fissures may lead to conflict with police, city government," Nov. 10). Then Knappenberger put out a press release stating his case and claiming to be a "key member" of Occupy Charlottesville.
"Knappenberger had already gone public with his criticism of the Occupy movement. But some clarification was needed," Cavalier Daily Managing Editor Andrew Seidman explained. "Did his thoughts about the direction of the movement resonate with other Occupiers? How was his message being received internally? Those were questions I thought had to be answered."
Making it clear that he was not a spokesman for Occupy Charlottesville and that what he had written was his opinion and not necessarily the group's, Fabian complained that The Cavalier Daily had "relied completely on the message of one individual to report about a movement that has no leaders or spokesman."
That is false. The Occupy movement claims to have no leaders, but some segments of the movement have designated people to speak to the press on their behalf. More importantly for this case, The Cavalier Daily did not rely on "the message of one individual." Knappenberger's message was set against quotes from three other people and several general references to what the reporter judged to be the attitudes and opinions of the group. Once editors decide the paper should cover something, the idea is to gather information, report it and let readers decided what they think about it. That seems to be what happened.
"My take on the story was that someone within the movement was speaking out against the movement, and my responsibility was to report on what both sides had said," Joseph Liss, who wrote the article, said in a email. "The movement often existed in general harmony and stayed true to a widely agreed upon message of opposing corporate greed and defending the '99 percent' and the right of Americans to protest. It was not often that conflict boiled to the surface, and, since the movement had met with generally positive, and on-message, press coverage as well as approval by city leaders, this moment of discord stood out."
In other words, it was news.
The media sometimes skews an argument by giving equal weight to two sides, when one side actually has the majority of the informed people and a preponderance of evidence. That seems not to have happened here. Knappenberger got his say, but he was outnumbered by the people with a differing view. That seems to reflect real life.
The Cavalier Daily did just what it should have in this case. It investigated an issue important to its community and reported what it found. If the story has flaws, they are there because The Cavalier Daily did not investigate further.
Knappenberger claimed to have done lots of work with police and Charlottesville City Council that benefitted Occupy Charlottesville. It would have been nice to hear what police and Council had to say about that. Some alleged that Knappenberger had harassed people, had run into trouble with the law, had mental problems. Liss should have asked Knappenberger directly about those things. Liss should have checked online court records to see if anything turned up. Knappenberger claimed to be an experienced activist. It would have been nice to know more about that experience.
But no story is perfect. The Cavalier Daily's coverage of Knappenberger and Occupy Charlottesville was appropriate, fair and a pretty good example of one of the things a newspaper is supposed to do.
Tim Thornton is the ombudsman for The Cavalier Daily. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.