Paul Rilling: Reporting on our lawmakers
Jun 01, 2012 | 2078 views |  0 comments | 7 7 recommendations | email to a friend | print
The most important story covered by The Star in May was the Alabama Legislature. There were stories most days about legislative actions on budgets, immigration and redistricting. Most were reports by the Associated Press. There also were articles by the Star staff about the impact of cuts in the two state budgets for next year.

A most important element of legislative news was missing in The Star’s coverage. Not once did a story about a vote in the state House or Senate include information on how area representatives or senators voted. Clearly, The Star’s editors do not see this information as part of their coverage. Yet, there is no more important function of the news media than informing the people about the actions of their elected representatives. Without such information, how can the voters hold their legislators accountable?

More information needed

“Constitutional cost” was a long story about a complex and important issue, providing legal representation for people who cannot afford it. The article, by Cameron Steele, considered the three systems Alabama counties use to provide services for the indigent: appointment of attorneys by judges case by case, the system used in Calhoun County; public defenders; and contracts with attorneys who handle these cases for a set annual fee, regardless of the number of cases. The contract system is the least expensive, and it is being pushed by the state agency concerned with the issue (May 13, Page 1A).

The article provided much information, but some important questions were overlooked. How does Calhoun County’s appointment system work? Do attorneys volunteer to take indigent cases, or do judges simply appoint them, whether the attorneys want the cases or not? How can counties change their system of handling indigent cases? Does it require local legislation? How much money could be saved here if the county changed to a contract system? How do judges evaluate the quality of representation in counties using the contract system? The story did include some information on payments to local attorneys for handling indigent cases. More information would have been interesting. Who were the top 20 highest-paid local attorneys? How much did each receive last year for taking how many cases?

Background data excessive

“Empty,” a May story about local subcontractors on Veterans Memorial Parkway who are still waiting for overdue payments, is another part of the parkway’s saga. It is questionable, however, whether this news justified the commitment of 55 column inches.

Sometimes it seems as though The Star wants stories to be as long as possible rather than as succinct as possible, the normal journalism model. This story, by Laura Camper, could have been told adequately in less than half of the space. Readers do need some background, but the total story of the parkway doesn’t have to be retold every time (May 27, 1A).

Star showed no gender bias

The Star’s sports staff did not often report directly on high school baseball or softball games during the regular season. It worked hard covering the state tournaments, following area teams with reporters and photographers. Nick Birdsong, Joe Medley, Bran Strickland and Al Muskewitz wrote solid stories, many on short deadlines. In a recent letter to Speak Out, reader and Saks alumna Pamela Carr complained of “the prejudice shown between girls and boys sports around here…” She was referring to the state titles won by the Saks High girls’ softball team and the Oxford High boys’ baseball team. “All these kids deserve the same and equal attention,” she wrote (May 30, 10A).

Did The Star provide equal coverage of the two state championship teams? Not exactly. On Saturday, May 19, the Saks state title was given a picture on Page 1A and a story and another photo on the sports section front. On Sunday, May 20, the Oxford state title received a story and photo on Page 1A and another story and photos on the sports front and a full page inside the section.

The Oxford boys’ title did receive more space. However, May 19 was a Saturday paper with a four-page sports section. That day, The Star also reported on another state title by the Ragland softball team. May 20 was a Sunday paper with a 12-page sports section and no other area high school story. The Star was not guilty of gender bias. It was bound by the realities of space available on Saturday vs. Sunday sports sections.

Too good to leave out

“We were so happy someone finally listened to us. Our local legislators wouldn’t, but the governor died.” — a quote used as a subhead on a story (May 9, 3A). Actually, the governor survived the legislative session.

Paul Rilling is a retired former editor at The Star.
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