Monday, August 4, 2008

Readers criticize story on hiking

Q: Lance Leage was one of my cousins. Why would you include the information about his 20-year-old court history in the article on his death while hiking? The family couldn’t see how that would have had any bearing whatsoever on the reported circumstances of his death, which was a fall. Should it become relevant, then I can understand it. The family was very hurt by the inclusion of that information.
—Brodie Leage, Orland (near Chico)

Q: I was disappointed in your story about the missing hiker Lance Leage and how it brought up his criminal background. What happened 20 years ago is irrelevant to what happened on the trail. I am more interested in knowing what happened on the trail and why he slipped and fell. The story was in poor taste and hurtful to the family.
—Paula Martin, Paso Robles

Q: As a parent who lost a child 20 years ago, I am sympathetic to the family. I think the inclusion of the past criminal record would make the tragic situation that much more hurtful. As a reader, the story left me with several questions. Here’s a young man, 42 years old, running down a trail in flip flops. What was that about?Who is this mysterious friend from L. A. with no name? And how could a bloody shirt be found separated from the body? Why weren’t these questions pursued? I’m much more interested in this and not his past.
—Pandora Nash-Karner, Los Osos

A: Since we published the article about Lance Leage on Tuesday, we have received about 30 calls and e-mails from the family, their friends and some individuals who don’t know the Leages, all raising the concerns expressed above. It was not our intention to hurt the family. Clearly, however, our report did, and we are deeply sorry for that.
The journalists that day considered whether to include the information or not. In the end, we included it because there were so many unanswered questions surrounding his death and he had an extensive criminal record that spanned the latter half of his life.
We understand why some readers would be upset. Some journalists in our newsroom think we should have held the information for a later story that more fully reported on the police investigation.
Exactly what happened on that trail remains to be known. The results of a toxicology report, which won’t be completed for several weeks, may shed some light, and whatever it shows we will be sure to share.
As for the questions about how the tragic accident occurred, we have asked those questions and will continue to do so. At this point, law-enforcement authorities aren’t releasing any additional information, saying their investigation is ongoing. We will share information with you as we learn it.
-- Sandra Duerr

Thursday, June 26, 2008

Are we trivializing war crimes? NO

Q. A week ago you printed a story with the headline, “U.S. general accuses White House of war crimes …’’ in which Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who investigated the abuse at Abu Ghraib, says, "... there is no longer any doubt as to whether the current administration has committed war crimes." This seems like a pretty important story, one that should have been displayed prominently on Page A1. But instead, it is buried on Page A8 without even a reference to it at the bottom of page A1. How in the world do you justify minimizing such an incredibly important story? Do you consider war crimes trivial?
-- Mark Phillips

A. We agree that this story – and more significantly, this issue – is an important one. That’s why we published (and hope that you read) a five-part investigative series called “Guantanamo: Beyond the Law’’ on the front page last week and dedicated more than six entire pages to it. This exclusive series by our Washington bureau disclosed the Bush administration’s policies and practices at Guantanamo and in Afghanistan – including how U.S. forces routinely rounded up the ‘wrong guys’ and abused them. It made abundantly clear that the rule of law, Geneva Conventions, was thoroughly stretched if not outright violated by Bush policies. The story you reference reiterated the theme of this series, so we played it on Page A8.
Clearly, story play is a judgment call and wise people often disagree. We believe we positioned this story correctly.

Q. When the vast majority of newspapers are either reporting non-news or reporting with biases that render the information irrelevant, I want to thank you for taking the step to engage in real reportage (your Guantanamo Bay series). The Bush-Cheney policies demand a thorough investigation and an impartial evaluation and this will only come from an independent media. I hope to see more of this caliber of news.
-- Elaine Watson, Los Osos

A. You are most welcome. Indeed, we will continue to offer strong investigative coverage from our Washington bureau. The staff there has been praised nationally for exclusives on intelligence failures leading up to the war in Iraq and taking a hard look at the administration’s justifications for war.

-- Sandy Duerr

Monday, June 9, 2008

Action shots show strain of the race

Q. That picture you ran of my daughter was the worst photo I have ever seen in a newspaper. She ran a great race, but from the photo you would think she ran poorly. This was her final high school track meet, so why did you pick such a bad photo to end her career on? You owe us an apology.
-- Alan Williams, father of San Luis Obispo High School track star Tonie Williams

A. The photo in question was published on Page 8 of our Sunday sports section June 1. It shows Mr. Williams’ daughter, Tonie, just after she crossed the finish line in sixth place in the 400-meter event at the state meet. This particular race is one of the most difficult in track, pitting the best runners from throughout California.
Our photo shows Mr. Williams’ talented daughter in the heat of competition. Our managing editor, Tad Weber, notes that “pictures of athletes in the midst of their sport might not be any subject’s preferred pose, but we certainly aren’t trying to make anybody look bad. We're sorry this photo upset Mr. Williams.”
A quick review of other athletes’ photos that we published the same day – and that we published other days from other competitions – reminds me of what my 13-year-old daughter tells me of the pictures taken of her playing soccer: She hates most of them.
So why do we publish action pictures?
Because the intensity and emotion they convey make them compelling – plus the photos typically reflect the athletes’ determination and athleticism. Showing athletes during their events – just as we portray other people during news or feature events – also captures history in action.
In the case of Tonie, a freelance photographer who took pictures for us at the state meet sent us two pictures, says Sports Editor Ashley Conklin. Her eyes were closed in one image, so he used the other one.
To be sure, we photograph athletes in feature settings when we’re writing stories about their achievements. We did such a story on Tonie Williams in 2007 (see photo from then).
The question raised by Mr. Williams reminds me of a question posed by a Morro Bay High School football fan last fall: “Why do you publish photos of football players with their helmets on? You can’t see their faces.’’
Our answer to this fan was similar: We want to document the event, and at the same time, put our readers on the sidelines to help them experience it.

Monday, May 19, 2008

News vs. advertising

I received a call this morning from a man who owns a cattle ranch near Cayucos. On the ranch is a home he rents to tourists who want to experience the ranching life. Such agritourism is a new way for ranchers to make some extra money from their main asset, their land. This caller was hoping we might do a story on his home and the piece of country he offers city slickers.
We often get these kind of calls. Our local news editors, Executive Editor Sandy Duerr and myself are targeted by business people who either suggest that stories be written about their enterprises, or they offer to write special columns for our readers, usually in a specific field, like money management or medicine.
Journalistically, we cannot promote one business at the expense of not writing about others in the same field. Nor can we let one business person have a speciality column when that person's competitors would not be granted such a status. If we did allow such coverage, we would be promoting that business owner over others. Journalistically, that is unfair, and the information is suspect.
Advertising, by contrast, is all about marketing one business or specialist. Someone spends their own money to buy space in our pages for their promotion.
This is a basic concept, but it is interesting how often I get asked by readers why we cannot "do a write up" about a certain commercial enterprise. We can't because it would be the wrong thing to do.
_ Tad Weber

Monday, May 12, 2008

Who makes front-page decisions - and when

Q. In the movie about Watergate, editors hashed out what news they were going to run on the front page. Do you do that and if so, when? And how many people are involved in those meetings?
-- Gary Dove, Rotary Club of Los Osos

A. We meet at least twice a day on weekdays and once on weekends, barring major breaking news when we meet more often. The local news editor, managing editor, presentation editor, online news producer and I initially huddle around 10:30 a.m. to discuss the day’s top stories, what we envision going online and what the next day’s front page might look like. We also get an update on our online traffic and which stories are attracting the most interest on our Web site,
We meet more formally at 2:15 p.m. with representatives from each news desk (business, sports, features and wires too), as well as our copy editors and page designers – about 10 to 12 people. Most of our decisions about the front page are made at this time. But we typically make the last call around 6 p.m. after we’ve had a chance to review the top state, nation and world stories that are just beginning to move on our wire services. After this, we review the front page as it is being designed to make sure the stories and photos are displayed where we think they should be.
If major breaking news occurs after this, some – or all – of this planning gets thrown out -- and we start over, on deadline.

-- Sandy Duerr

Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Go on and criticize us ...

Q. In January, you (Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane) assured me that letters critical of The Tribune are not a reason for rejection. Am I to believe that a letter critical of the paper's editorial board is another matter?
-- Donald Hirt, Paso Robles

A. We have long published letters and viewpoints critical of our editorial positions. “While we do reserve the right to reject letters that contain personal attacks and/or unfounded allegations, we don’t reject letters on the basis of political ideology,’’ says Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane. That said, letter writers should keep in mind that we have a larger than usual volume of letters right now, and that will likely continue to be the case through the November election. We’re delighted to have so many submissions, but it does mean that it may take longer than usual for a particular letter to appear.

-- Sandra Duerr

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Check out our "Photos from the Vault''

Q. “Photos from the Vault’’ is an amazing blog! I recommended it to my dad, who is an elementary school teacher in Atascadero and is very interested in local history.
-- Diana T.

A. We’re so glad you enjoy it. The Tribune’s articles and pictures “are the record of a community’s hopes, ambitions, successes and disasters,’’ says senior photographer David Middlecamp, who created the blog last November. He hopes it will “give people a stronger connection to their evolving community -- where it has been and where it is headed.”
So far the blog has proven quite popular. “It seems to be a gathering point for folks to share their memories,’’ Middlecamp says. “People can click on the photos to see a larger version and post comments on what they see and read.’’
In searching for photos in The Tribune’s archives, Middlecamp says he looks “for news, seasonal stories, trends, beginnings, endings, oddities or a pop culture moment. … It is not all cheerful nostalgia; there are cringe-worthy moments of dated coverage reflecting the bias of the times.” Many photos don’t make the cut, such as awards banquets.
Middlecamp tries to post three photos a week and enjoys the give-and-take among online readers. If you haven’t visited the blog yet, I encourage you to do so at Besides learning about some of our county’s history, you’ll gain insight into the major national news of the day and our own newsroom’s operation.

-- Sandy Duerr