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Bob Davis: Sharp focus of reporting on a difficult story

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The Anniston Star's name is seen on the outside of Consolidated Publishing Co.'s Anniston headquarters.

As an editor, I’ve always followed a rule of thumb: Never promise that a story will be published until it is ready to be published.

Countless times over my 30 years in journalism, an interested party has asked if such-and-such story will be on the front page the next day. My stock answer is that I don’t make those promises until a story has gone through our editing process. That process starts with reporters diving into a story without having made foregone conclusions, reporters seeking multiple sides of a story and editors fact-checking that story.

An article accusing H. Brandt Ayers, chairman of Consolidated Publishing and former publisher of The Anniston Star, of sexual assault, which was published online Monday and in Tuesday’s print edition of The Star, brought this process into sharp focus.

The article began:

“A former Anniston Star reporter says that H. Brandt Ayers, chairman of the company that publishes the paper, sexually assaulted her in the 1970s in The Star’s newsroom.

“Veronica Pike Kennedy says Ayers, then the newspaper’s publisher, spanked her against her will in an incident on a Saturday, when Ayers and Kennedy were among the few workers in the building.”

Ayers responded via statement Monday morning: “As a very young man with more authority than judgment, I did some things I regret. At my advanced age I wish I could relive those days again, knowing the seriousness of my position and with the accumulated judgment that goes with age.”

Over my 14 years with this company, I’d never heard such allegations.

On Nov. 17, Anniston Star reporter Eddie Burkhalter noticed an online column by Joey Kennedy in the Alabama Political Reporter that obliquely mentioned the allegations involving his wife, Veronica Pike Kennedy. Joey Kennedy eventually named Ayers in another column.

These are difficult stories to cover regardless of who is involved. The reporter covering such a story needs to bring judgment, maturity and an open mind to the table. Given that Kennedy’s initial column didn’t mention the accused by name and that the incident dated back to the 1970s, I wanted our staff to proceed carefully.

Mere questions about sexual misconduct can damage reputations, and that applies to newspaper publishers, politicians, teachers and so on. In covering similar stories involving people from our community, our reporters and editors applied the same standards as we did in the case involving Ayers.

The Star typically doesn’t name people accused of sexual crimes; we wait until they are convicted before naming them.

Managing editor Ben Cunningham and I discussed our next steps over the course of several days. Cunningham was ready to proceed, but I wanted to understand exactly what was at issue and make sure we had our best reporter on this before starting. This is the important point: At this initial stage, we hadn’t made a decision to publish a story, and we hadn’t made a decision to not publish a story. We simply didn’t know enough to make that decision.

On Nov. 17, I directed Cunningham to tell Burkhalter to suspend work on the story for a few days until we had a chance to sit down and discuss it the following week. Cunningham did that, and Burkhalter agreed to wait. But Burkhalter revealed the next week that he’d continued reporting anyway, despite agreeing not to do so and against the direction of his supervisors. We hadn’t yet had a chance to review how we would go about treating sources who wished to remain anonymous and inquiring into events alleged to have happened more than 40 years ago.

During a meeting, I asked Burkhalter to acknowledge that he had not followed Cunningham’s direction. In the course of that meeting, Burkhalter resigned. My point still held: We hadn’t made a decision to publish a story, and we hadn’t made a decision to not publish a story. We can’t do that until we’ve assembled all the relevant facts.

To that end, The Star assigned reporter Tim Lockette to the story on Nov. 21, the day Burkhalter quit. Lockette is the most experienced reporter on staff, bringing fairness, a level head and first-rate reporting skills to the table.

As Cunningham described in a column this week, we were still in the process of seeking out and talking to potential sources when Burkhalter published an article Monday detailing the allegations in the Alabama Political Reporter. When that story, which included unnamed sources, was published, The Star decided to publish the information we had, reasoning it was already public.

As events warrant, we will continue to cover this story.

There’s one other decision I made on Nov. 21. The Star is instituting a new policy regarding workplace harassment. Our employees will be briefed on what procedures to follow if a coworker acts inappropriately and the consequences for such harassment. We want our new policy to ensure all Consolidated Publishing employees work in safety.

Bob Davis is editor and publisher of The Anniston Star. Contact him at 256-235-3540 or Twitter: EditorBobDavis