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.Â It’s a sad case, coming 11 months after the bullying related suicide of 11 year-old Carl Joseph Walker-Hoover,Â 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). Â 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 wasÂ 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, Â 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.Â 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.