Monday, January 11, 2010
Nelda Holder, Part I, in Mountain Express; Gabriel Shaffer, Part III
In a comment below, the publisher of Mountain Xpress, points out the misspelling of his publication's name in this post.
Nelda Holder, a former associate editor of Mountain Express and now a freelancer, had an intriguing story called "Home for the holidays" in the Express's January 6 issue. It portrayed a Black Mountain family's entanglement in the legal and social services system after a son was removed from the home and the parents were charged with medical neglect.
The case was based on a complaint to DSS from an unidentified source, so apparently the parents' Sixth Amendment right to be confronted with a witness against them does not apply in this case.
Mountain Express may be the only local newspaper that can regularly devote any of the precious "news hole" to these long-form stories. But since Mountain Express uncaped crusader-reporter Cecil Bothwell, it seems even it can't afford long-form staff time for digging deeply. So we should be grateful to Holder for using her presumably unpaid time and grateful to the Express for giving her the space.
According to the editor's note, the reporter followed the "complex child-custody case" over nine months, attending court sessions and interviewing the family. The note makes clear that the current article "outlines" the family's experience and that a "subsequent article" will give more details. So perhaps we can overlook the fact that only one side of the story, the family's, gets told. Will Holder be able to get facts and quotes from medical, legal and DSS personnel beyond their testimony in court. Or will privacy laws prevent them from answering her questions?
Holder says, "The family is due to return to court in January, and after that hearing, Xpress will report in more detail on the medical, legal and governmental aspects of the case."
Holder's story was absorbing and full of human drama, but some readers (including this one) were frustrated by the reporter's inability to give more information.
One commenter asked, "What were the results of the psych. evaluations? Has lack of a primary care physician become a reason to snatch a child from it’s [sic] parents? What about folks who are in transition? Can they lose their child due to not having a primary care physician? Something is screwy here." Another asked, "Why did the pediatrician terminate services, and did the DSS have access to those records?"
Holder's answer was a little alarming: "Good questions. And the answers are illusive, but we’re working on it." Working on it? And I hope she meant the answers are elusive, not illusive. What happens to this story if she runs into a brick wall of "That's a confidential medical issue?" Even Mountain Express managed to dodge questions about the firing of the Caped Crusader with "That's a personnel issue."
So, today's Journalism 101 take-home questions:
Was there a pressing news reason to print the story now?
Should Mountain Express editors have held Holder's story until after the January hearing or beyond, making sure she could get the answers she needs?
Should a nine-month investigative story been a ten-month story, with Part II published immediately after Part I?
In the same issue of Mountain Express, features reporter Ali Marshall had a piece on local self-taught artist Gabriel Shaffer, who also adorned the cover.
The art critics in town (are there any?) will have to evaluate Shaffer's art, but media critics might wonder why the Express is featuring Shaffer again, after Ursula Gullow's profile of him last August. Shaffer himself also wrote an article for the paper last May. Is Mountain Express in some conspiracy to be kind to Mr. Shaffer?
Shaffer's work is being shown at Blue Spiral 1's Showcase Gallery. Marshall indicates he is part of the gallery's "New X Three: New Works, New Artists, New Year!" show, but Shaffer's name does not appear among the eight artists the gallery includes in that group. That's a picky distinction that her editor probably didn't catch.
The only other artist Marshall writes about from this show -in a sidebar - is Phil Blank, a Carrboro artist. "Blank and his wife are fans of Asheville and actually winter here," Marshall tells us.
For a newspaper whose motto is "Local matters!," the local painters in the show beside Shaffer - Luke Allsbrook, Robert Dunning and Mitchell Lonas - might wonder why they don't matter to Mountain Express. Do Allsbrook, Dunning and Lonas actually winter, spring, summer and fall here?