Banal Failures of The Springfield Republican’s Phoebe Prince Coverage

Among media observers in Western Massachusetts, The Springfield Republican has a well earned reputation for protecting select powerful and corrupt people. That’s what I assumed was happening with the Phoebe Prince story, because much of the Republican coverage has been lacking. However, based on my investigation, the explanation is more banal: I’ve discovered an incompetent reporter with little courthouse experience and a newspaper trying cobble together a daily publication after cuts to newsroom staff by more than 60% in 2009.

You’ve probably heard the story out of South Hadley, Massachusetts, concerning the bullying and suicide of freshman high school student Phoebe Prince. According to a statement made by the District Attorney on 29 March 2010, there was a bullying campaign that lasted at least 3 months towards Phoebe. Thus far, Northwestern District Attorney Elizabeth Scheibel (a native of South Hadley) has charged 6 teens in the case; more teens may be charged. It’s a sad case, coming 11 months after the bullying related suicide of 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover, just down the road in Springfield.

The bulllying issue and these two cases coming up so close on each other would seem like a great opportunity for the local daily newspaper, The Springfield Republican, to make itself indispensable in the community. But the Springfield newspaper has failed the community on some basic levels, in particular holding the adults in this case — the school teachers and administrators — accountable for their inaction.

How The Republican got scooped in its own backyard

When compared to The Boston Globe, The New York Times, and to a lesser extent the Boston Herald, the Springfield Republican has been getting beat on stories. You would think for a local newspaper they’d have the sources to get deep on this story, but thus far they don’t.

Sandra Constantine is the Republican reporter covering the South Hadley and Granby beat, who for the most part has been the primary reporter on the Phoebe Prince story. Other Republican reporters have been stepping up to help, but the majority of stories have been written by Constantine. This is a problem because Constantine has very little experience with the courthouse beat. A review of her work since 2007 reveals that Constantine has attended maybe three criminal arraignments; of those, her published work suggests that in only one case did she do research of court documents (“Suspect facing weapons counts,” 10 May 2007, Springfield Republican). Despite reporting for the Republican since the early 1980s, her court reporting experience is reed-thin.

On the morning of April 8th, three teens were arraigned on charges related to the bullying of Phoebe Prince. Sandra Constantine wrote a story that was posted at 9:30am, then updated on the Web at 8:30pm; the 8:30pm version of the story appeared in print on April 9. The thrust of the her story was a retelling of the charges and a census of the people attending the hearing. In addition, posted with the Web versions of the story was a PDF document of the indictments filed.

By itself the indictments are more or less useless when trying to write a story about the evidence the district attorney is presenting in support of her charges against the teens. If you want to know the facts and argument the D.A. is presenting to the court, you need the memorandum of law for each of the defendants; that memorandum includes the issue presented, statement of the case, statement of the facts (the important part), and argument (legal mumbo jumbo).  This is a public legal document available to anyone from the clerk of courts.

Without the statement of facts, which is a brief narrative of some of the evidence gathered (much more evidence will be presented at trial), Constantine couldn’t write a story worth your time reading. Why didn’t she get this document when both the Boston Globe and New York Times did?

Based on my investigation, it’s clear she attended the hearing and wrote a story that was posted to the Web at 9:30am; that story and the 8:30pm update included the (useless) indictments of the three defendants. In the morning the clerk only had the indictments on file, which were given to Constantine. She probably left the courthouse soon after to begin writing her first story, but never followed-up with the clerk for more documents.

What Constantine didn’t know was that the memorandum of law wasn’t filed with the clerk until later in the day. According to an email conversation I had with Boston Globe reporter, Peter Schworm, he wasn’t sure what time he received the documents, but “it was late in the day though – I remember b/c I was here until quite late.”

As I’ve detailed above, Constantine doesn’t have a lot of courthouse reporting experience, and in this case she was incompetent in preparing her story, which leaves the question, where the hell were her editors? After reading the story, didn’t they notice there wasn’t any useful content? The first story was filed at 9:30am, which would leave a lot of time to double back and get it right for the 8:30pm update. That is if someone knew the story was crap as filed. I guess we should heap a load of criticism on the story editors too.

How The Republican Can Improve Coverage

In addition to replacing Sandra Constantine with a seasoned court reporter, the Republican needs to develop better sources. Reading through the coverage thus far, it’s clear they haven’t developed sources that could shed light on adult behavior in the school. Why aren’t the reporters using Twitter to shake sources and information loose? That’s what I did to help write the article you’re reading. If a blogger can do it, why not a credentialed reporter?

There’s another problem at the Republican — not exactly related to the story — that nonetheless has affected the coverage of the Phoebe Prince story. In 2009 the Republican had two rounds of layoffs, in January and July, that decimated the newsroom. Right now they have about 22 full-time reporters, of which 20 or so cover more than 60 communities in the Republican circulation area.

Because general assignment reporters can’t be expected to be experts in every topic or issue that comes across their geographic beat, newspapers will often have reporters that cover specialized beats: business, food, medical, sports, and courts, for example. Right now the Republican has two of these specialized beats: the statehouse and the courts in Springfield (federal and state district). If a reporter (and editor) with courthouse experience were on the case, I’m sure the Republican would have better coverage.

The Republican should also closely look at the court documents for new story ideas. In the statement of the facts against defendant Ashley Longe,  there’s an interesting incident in the school library that took place on January 14, 2010 (the day Prince committed suicide). Here’s an excerpt explaining what happened:

According to witnesses, the defendant made reference to Ms.Prince on multiple oceassions while in the library. The first time, the defendant yelled something to the eFfect of “close your legs” and “I hate stupid sluts.” [...] The defendant walked by Ms. Prince’s table and said something to the effect that she (the defendant) hated sluts. According to witnesses the defendant said it loud enough so that Ms. Prince could hear it; and she did. According to one student, the defendant “was standing next to another table screaming at [Ms. Prince] from across the library.” [...] This student described the defendant as “taunting” Ms. Prince, or saying things to her from across the library, on and off for the five minutes that he and another male student were in the library. [...] The defendant’s comments to Ms. Prince were loud enough that they were overheard by other students in the library.

The narrative of the library incident is one and a half pages long; it’s very detailed. What I find astonishing is that not one person of authority is mentioned in the account. No librarian. No aid. No teacher. Not one person of authority makes an appearance in the narrative of the incident. Why?

Based on reporting, I’ve learned that the South Hadley High School library is sometimes “like the wild west.” Depending who the particular staff is in charge, discipline can be almost non-existent. Why is it like the “wild west” in the library? Are school staff themselves being intimidated by some students? I’ve heard one story about a past incident in the South Hadley High School that would confirm such behavior.

This could be a great news story that might address the issue of teachers trying (and sometimes failing) to stop bullies from running amok. What’s causing staff to fail to control behavior?

Another possible area of interest is a story dating back to 15 September 2007, written by Constantine, about two students that were suspended from South Hadley High School for 10 days because they had discharged Mace outside the library that put two students into the hospital. Was this a case of bullying? Here’s another published example of delinquent activity taking place in or around the library; what’s the problem there?

More in general, it would probably be helpful to actually dig into the archives and find other incidents that may or may not demonstrate a pattern of bullying or delinquent behavior in the high school.

Good Coverage About Important Stories Is Critical

Why should we be bothered by crappy news coverage about any story in our community? If you believe the function of our news media is to purely entertain the masses, then you might not see the importance of solid, enterprising reporting. However, if you understand that part of the function of the news media is to accurately inform legislators and citizens about the important issues of the day, which then in turn influences what laws get written and passed, you know the critical role the news media plays in our democracy. Situations like this don’t come along too often when a news story is bubbling up during the legislative process, like it is now with the currently pending bullying legislation in the statehouse.

UPDATE: I emailed Sandra Constantine on 4/15/2010 at 6:11 pm, asking for her response if she had one. Thus far she hasn’t responded. If she does, I will publish it in full. There’s also a conversation about this piece happening over at Media Nation.

Photo: public domain via Wikipedia.

14 thoughts on “Banal Failures of The Springfield Republican’s Phoebe Prince Coverage

  1. The Springfield Republican has been an awful, awful newspaper for the past several years, which is sad considering it’s the largest in Western Mass. I was an editor at the UMass Amherst student newspaper (Daily Collegian) in 2005-2006, and I was highly offended by an article the Republican did on our paper that falsely accused us of repeatedly blasting a Republican-leaning columnist, which was very untrue. When I contacted the reporter, it was clear the only shred of research she did was on an incident that occurred like eight years earlier, which of course reflected poorly on myself and fellow editors/reporters who were on the verge of applying for jobs after college.

    Additionally, the Republican’s coverage of area events is always lacking. They get beat by the Northampton Gazette 9 times out of 10, which is funny because the Gazette has 1/8 of the circulation of the Republican, last time I checked.

    Another thing I couldn’t stand was their constant use of AP photos as feature photos on the front page. They were always from other parts of the country.

    I could go on and on…. Just an awful paper

    1. Thank you for your comment, Dan.

      Yes, the Daily Hampshire Gazette does regularly scoop the Republican. And I would also add that the Gazette out hustles the Respublican. On one day during the Prince story the Gazette had five articles by five reporters. The Republican? One article.

  2. As far as not holding the adults responsible, there’s maybe two reasons for doing so which the media hasn’t explored.

    One, the teachers probably have better representation (attorneys) than the students do.

    Two, the teachers probably were willing sooner to give testimony which may have granted them a kind of tacit immunity against charges, even if there was no actual immunity granted by some formal process by the DA.

    And last and maybe least, from a PR point of view it looks better to charge students than also charge faculty who may have been inactive to the point of implying that they condone at least some of the bullying that took place in their presence. Students, hey, you can expel some and say you did something. Teachers, it’s more difficult (and more expensive) to replace them.

    Cynical? Sounds pretty realistic to me. About the only way to begin to know for sure is to begin reporting on the role that some of the teachers might have played in the bullying, and there’s not a word of detail on that either in the press or in any of the legal documents I’ve seen online about this. This is in spite of numerous editorials decrying how no charges were filed against adults. If it’s a shame that no charges were filed, what happened that charges might possibly have been filed over?

    I know some will say the parents of the bullies deserve more blame than the teachers do. Certainly the bullies likely came from dysfunctional, maybe abusive families, but there’s families like that in every community, and rarely does bullying progress to this degree.

    If you want an analogy to what maybe happened, look at the Stanley Milgram experiments from the 50s and 60s which demonstrated that out of obedience to authority otherwise normal subjects would apply electrical shocks to a hidden subject (who actually wasn’t being shocked) until they were possibly unconscious and maybe killed. Now the teachers surely weren’t playing a role outright encouraging students to bully Phoebe, but the point is they are very strong influences in students lives and if they didn’t act to intervene they may have been adding to the problem, enough to be considered to have actually facilitated the abuse.

  3. Excellent, if wincing, analysis here. But I’d like to know more about exactly who runs the Republican and who owns it– since, ultimately, they are the ones who decided that an inadequate and overworked reporter was sufficient manpower to handle this story.

    If the reporter you mention has indeed been with the Republican since the early 1980s, she is at least in her 50s. That means she has seen the paper dismantle whatever previous glory it once had, and is probably demoralized. I’ve worked with older town reporters before at the Patriot-Ledger and Brockton Enterprise; many of them worked mostly from home, and were more than happy to let ‘the kids’ chase the big stories to further their careers.

    From your recounting of affairs here, my first instinct is to wonder whether the reporter falls into that category.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Joey.

      As to who owns the paper, that was really out of the scope of my article. It’s a Newhouse paper.

      As it stands right now, the Republican, like most newspapers in the U.S., is barely hanging on. There are no “kids” to chase down stories. They probably don’t have a reporter any younger than 30 yrs old.

      With that said, as I mention in the article, editors still allocate resources, so they have some responsibility for the product they put on sale every morning.

  4. And one other thing to add, another possible reason for no prosecution of school staff (and maybe minimal coverage as well) is that it might help shift some of the risk of a civil judgement (or lessen the judgement) against the school and, indirectly, local taxpayers who would pay fot the judgement. If one attributes sole legal responsibility (of whoever is held responsible) to a handful of mid-teens in Phoebe’s death, then while their parents may have to pay a substatial civil judgment, the school’s liability is maybe reduced by making them the ones held solely legally responsible.

    1. Thank you for your comments, Stephanie.

      It’s hard for me to speculate about why the DA did or did not charge adults in this matter. The DA had her reasons. She’s a professional that’s served mostly with distinction for a while now. That’s why this is a prefect opportunity for the news media to dig into the story of where the adults were during the campaign of bullying. As the DA said, the inaction of adults did not rise to the point of a crime; but that does not mean they weren’t complicit in the bullying, and that’s where news media needs to step up.

  5. Bill, first, thanks for your analysis of local media coverage. It’s really worth reading your article for that alone, and if this is typical of your blog I’ll be glad to encourage friends to read and post here as well. But while I agree that the DA appears to be a well-qualified professional and acting as DA’s do, I disagree with the DA’s statement that the inaction of adults did not rise to the point of being a crime. It’s possible that adults involved with the school did commit crimes or that they came close but that she and/or others in the DA’s office did not feel they had enough evidence to charge any of the adults with a crime.

    I’ll need to look at her exact words to know what she said, but I think the meaning is more accurately going to be that the did not feel there was enough evidence to file criminal charges against adults who were probably present in some sort of role between adults directly supervising minors and hence responsible for their well being, and bystanders which as you know can in most cases witness crimes, at least these kinds of crimes, without being themselves guilty if they don’t report it or intervene.

    I just feel that given all the laws and precidents for holding school officials from teachers to administrators liable for any kind of injury and in some cases even insults hurled between students — and I have some close friends who are teachers who have told me as much — given the admittedly ambigious but outraged commentary coming from the media AND government officials (!) of the school’s almost complete inaction in the face of numerous bits of information about Phoebe’s vulnerability and the abuse that was going on and the fact that no charges have been filed, and apparently no charges WILL be filed — that’s the key, the DA did essentially say that no charges will be filed — if the DA can’t even come up with charges against school officials related to a violation of Phoebe’s civil rights or Title IX violations, some sort of deal may have been essentially cut to trade evidence or testimony for the DA’s office not pursuing criminal charges.

    Sorry for the run-on sentence — and yes, maybe I should write this up and have a copy editor help me with my composition — but I’d really like to get your comments on this.

    I really think that some teachers and administrators are if not guilty themselves of civil rights violations — which of course itself may not be a crime, but if they’re essentially witnessing what in some cases, like the library incidents, amounts to a kind of hate crime and don’t get involved or make enough noise in reporting it to make an impression and at least appear to do something that maybe OUGHT to be a crime — if they aren’t guilty of a crime, they’re guilty of some sort of civil offense bad enough to ensure they will be sued on those grounds in civil court.

  6. Ah, a Newhouse paper… the cuts aren’t too surprising, then.

    I only ask about the ownership because, especially at smaller newspapers, the publisher and top editor really are more responsible for poor newsroom resources than the day-to-day editors. I’m sure the city editors in charge of the reporters are just as frustrated with the quality of product as we are– but also are probably just as under-manned and incompetent as the reporter is, too. Mid-level newspapers have become a bit of a wasteland for never-quite-made it journalists.

  7. In the days before the Springfield Newspapers — the morning Union and the afternoon Daily News — merged into the Union-News in 1987, the two papers maintained separate staffs and separate copy desks.

    As a radio, and later, newspaper reporter during that era who regularly encountered the Springfield Newspapers’ staffers no matter what assignment I had, it kept the rest of us on our toes. The Union and Daily News simply had more reporters in more places than any other paper in the region.

    A story like the Phoebe Prince case would have gotten blanket coverage back in the 1980s when the competition between the Union and the Daily News was as hot as the Springfield Newspapers versus every other paper west of the Quabbin.

    That’s why it’s a misnomer to solely blame the current economic troubles for the thin coverage in today’s Republican. They have been steadily cutting back since the merger and now they are left with a paper that’s a shadow of what it was back in the prosperous years of the 1970s and 80s.

    1. I agree with you 100 percent, and thank your for contributing this important point. There’s so much to explain the coverage of not only the Prince story, but any major story that appears in the Republican. I wrote more than 1600 words in this post, and I felt like that was probably too much.

      Thanks!

  8. A very interesting analysis. You are correct about the lack of knowledge about the courthouse. The old-line reporters always knew who the clerks were, how to get docket numbers and how to access the files even when those files were in still in the courtrooms. Nowadays, with online portals with almost instantaneous updating, there is no excuse for not knowing what is going on with the hottest cases in town. Still, I found The Republican (and it’s masslive site) to be of great use, partly due to some of the people commenting on the stories. But there, too, is the issue of me following up whereas the reporter(s) failed to do so.

    If Newhouse cannot change their business plan, they are doomed to the same ending as some other recent departures from the print industry.

  9. I am an outsider to all this but probably have experienced the same situation here. You are quite right the reporting lacks a lot of detail, detail that would make a big difference. The small local papers here are definitely afraid of reporting anything the school officials or teachers wouldn’t like. They are a large and very strong group. Saying the wrong thing by both a paper or the citizens can bring the wrath of both their lawyers and/or their union reps. No matter what happens at any school it is never their fault….none of it and if anything they use the local papers to say exactly that. When anything happens the defenders come out in full force and parents with students in the school are almost afraid to be interviewed or to even say anything negative. It is a well protected organization.

    Chateline Mag this month has a full account of workplace bullying, who, why and the laws protecting adults. One statement that applies here: bullying takes place where there is a definite lack of leadership – I believe that is exactly what happened here. No one including the principal blinked an eye as each of these outward and obvious bullying tactics occured. As the story unfolded their main and only concern was to protect themselves. This story required a little investigative reporting. I would be collecting all the info known and pointing out all the changes. School officials first denied knowing anything, their investigation was all about finding out who knew what and covering it. Their story was different everytime they spoke, the princiapl was muzzled. They were still waiting to talk to the DA as if out of concern but really to see what she knows, what evidence she has, will it stick, should they be changing their story again. It’s pretty clear that the bullies had the run of that school and of course if the staff and teachers just ignore it that is the signal for the other students to do the same. They created the atmosphere at this school and by doing so allowed and even encouraged it to happen. They have not been charged with anything…unfortunately. It should be clear to anyone that they did not do their jobs but once again they close circle and get away with it. That I believe is the reason nothing has changed and nothing will change until they are held accountable for their actions or lack of actions.

    Officials at the school just want to move on, the quicker the better. They used students directly or indirectly to hold the peace rally and say let’s just forget about it and move on. I would have made a point of interviewing the students without a prepared script. It’s in full damage control now and using the local papers to get out their own messages is a standard strategy.

    It’s a very sad story….and the outcome is not what it should be to help change what is going on in these schools.

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