Blogger Eric Francis: Why I Wrote What I Did
A national controversy erupted yesterday through social media over a post by Vermont News, reporter Eric Francis’s blog on DailyUV. Objections to the post -- primarily its headlines -- grew through the day. Yesterday evening, over the blogger’s objections, Subtext Media founder Watt Alexander chose to remove the post from the site and present an apology in its place. (Subtext Media is the startup behind DailyUV.)
This morning, we decided it would be instructive to give both Francis and Alexander an opportunity to explain their thinking publicly. (Read Alexander’s response.) In conjunction with that, we also gave Francis an opportunity to republish his post, leaving it up to him whether he would make changes in response to the controversy. He has chosen to republish the post without changes.
The questions I put to Francis by email and his responses follow.
First the basics: How did you report this story? That is, what documents, people and proceedings did you have access to?
The same way I have covered literally thousands of arraignments at courthouses all over the Northeast for the past 32 years: I sat through Ryan Stocker’s arraignment in the courtroom and listened to the discussion between the prosecutors, defense attorney and the judge. Then I copied off and read three-dozen pages of court documents including police affidavits and sworn witness statements that were made available. And then I sat down to write a report for the public that wasn’t able to be there about what just transpired in their courthouse that I felt would inform them about a serious criminal case that just appeared on the docket in their community.
The outcry on the Internet related to the headlines you wrote rather than the accuracy of your story. What was your reasoning in writing them as you did?
Headlines by definition are short statements that give you some idea about what the story is about. Although I try to be clear and concise and pack as much information as possible into headlines and subheads, anyone who reads too much nuance into what is or isn’t in the headline as opposed to the story itself is really just doing themselves a disservice. Headlines have been around for centuries now. Most people have figured out how to handle them without losing their cool.
I would expect the headline “Chester honor roll student faces potential life sentence” to quickly signal that this is set in Chester, it involves a high school student who you probably wouldn’t expect to be accused of a crime on an average day and yet this is a really serious case.
Critics interpreted your headlines as being sympathetic to the defendant and less so to the girls he is accused of assaulting. What would you say to those people?
I would say that this is no different than thousands of other descriptive headlines of people accused of serious crimes. O.J. Simpson was described in headlines like “Heisman Trophy Winner now suspected of murder” and the CraigsList Killer was repeatedly referred to as a “medical student” in headlines down in Boston. I think it is an incredible stretch to take a shorthand description of someone -- and “honor roll student” was how Stocker was described in court this week -- that just tries to give some context to which person we are talking about and view it as some secret signal from the reporter as to which side he thinks the public should come down on. I have no idea how this case is going to play out. I don’t have a side. That’s why I’m covering it on behalf of any interested members of the public.
As to the girls involved, I would have thought that the subhead which read “Two teen girls say they were drunk when sexually assaulted” would have sent the message that IF (if) the allegations are true that this would not seem to be one of those “he said/she said” situations as to what extent consent was obtained because, obviously, somebody who is a teenager, and by her own rendition vomiting all over the place, is not somebody who can meaningfully consent to sex. Most people I’ve spoken to about this can see what I was driving at. Some others apparently think that I was sending some sort of subliminal `dog whistle’ that the girls had it coming, which is ironic because it appears from the girls’ statements that they wanted to stress to investigators that despite their limited recall about what actually allegedly transpired they were adamant that they knew they were drunk and that no one should have been taking advantage of them considering their condition.
You put your email at the bottom of all your posts, including this one. Did anyone contact you directly about it, and did you respond?
Out of the more than 13,000 people who read the story yesterday before the plug was pulled three people sent me emails, including the mother of one of the putative victims.
I did not initially respond, partly because I was thinking over whether my replies would lead me to being perceived as “sympathetic” to one side or the other but mainly because lots of other news has been going on in the past 24 hours that I needed to go cover.
I already knew the names of the two girls who were involved and the police reports state flat out that their identities are “common knowledge” around the high school but I didn’t feel it was my place to “out” them as the victims which is why the only information I included was their ages.
The girl’s mother who wrote me took issue with the words “honor roll student” and suggested (I hope she won’t mind my using just this small part of her email) that - This boy is being accused of serial rape and your headline is, "aaawwa, he's a good kid being accused of something bad. Poor kid"
She went on to list an impressive series of accomplishments by her daughter which, if I were to print all or even any of them, would allow not just her friends and fellow students to instantly identify her but also anyone who has access to an Internet search engine for the rest of her life. I’m not sure what her point was because if I had run a complete description of how to figure out who her daughter is I imagine the uproar from that would have been phenomenal.
One of the other three people who contacted me via email wrote in part, "There are more charges pending and you feel it's alright to identify this despicable young man as an honor student?! How about serial rapist, alcohol provider, juvenile delinquent…?”
Again, are these people who are upset about the implications of the word “honor roll” really suggesting that having reporters blithely describe someone as “despicable” or assign them a crime that they haven’t actually been convicted of is the better, preferable approach here?
You write about difficult topics: people accused of crimes and their victims. In doing so, how much do you consider potential reaction in the community and beyond?
I write for the general public, the readers, in order to let them know what goes on around them which they have an absolute right to know. Some of what comes through the door at police stations and courthouses is profoundly upsetting. I try to balance a basic sense of fairness and good taste with the need to discuss often complicated and nuanced situations without making each story thirty pages long.
There is a lot of distressing and disturbing detail that I leave out of these stories but I try to communicate fairly what I think are the essences of the facts that the public should weigh while being fair to both sides.
In light of what you know now, would you have written the headlines or the story any differently?
Simply put, no, absolutely not.
How do you think DailyUV should have handled your story and the reaction to it?
I think, per their own stated policy, they should have remained the neutral publishing platform that carries my blog. People who objected to what I wrote can, and did, contact me. I stand by my story and my reporting.
Is there anything else you’d like to say?
This is really petty, but that’s kind of the point about this whole affair, at least as it appeared on Huffington Post: The Huffington Post columnist, Alanna Vagianos, took pains to point out -- twice -- in her story on this supposedly sensitive topic that I initially had a typo (honor “role” instead of “roll”) in my headline. Being a former honor roll student myself, I found it and fixed it within minutes of publishing the story. Typos are to journalists what paper cuts are to librarians, but Vagianos apparently thinks they too have some sinister subtext all the rest of us have missed (she writes “And, not for nothing, they spelled `role’ incorrectly in their headline)! … and yet she’s had the word “charges” misspelled for two days running in her lede paragraph as “Stocker could face even more chargers as police investigate…” It kind of makes you miss the good old days when journalism was a much more exclusive profession carried out by adults.