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By Jeremy Schiffres, Daily and Sunday Freeman, Kingston, N.Y.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Shoddy journalism

With just one exception, I have never used this blog to criticize another Hudson Valley newspaper. Yes, I think we at the Freeman provide the best local news coverage, but I don’t feel the need to make that point publicly — or expose what I see as the shortcomings of other local media — because I believe our work speaks for itself, and I see no real benefit in bad-mouthing others.

But I have been so steamed since reading the most recent edition of one of the local weekly newpapers (henceforth to be referred to as "the weekly"), that I cannot hold my tongue.

A front-page story in the July 31 edition of the weekly, reporting on a grisly killing in the East Kingston section of the town of Ulster, was headlined “Hate crime? Police consider anti-gay motive in East Kingston homicide.”

The headline, and the premise of the story, were wrong — dead wrong — and I’ll explain why in a moment. First, though, some background for those of you who don’t follow local news:

Firefighters, responding to a call of a vehicle ablaze the afternoon of July 25 in a wooded area of East Kingston, found a gray Nissan pickup on fire and a dead man inside. In the days that followed, police said the truck was registered to a 59-year-old Kerhonkson man named Michael Kleiman and that Kleiman had not been seen since. Police would not, however, say that the dead man was, in fact, Kleiman because they were — and still are — awaiting the results of DNA tests. (We later learned the tests were needed because the dead man’s head and hands apparently had been removed before the truck was set ablaze, meaning the body could not be ID’d through dental records or fingerprints. Police would not confirm this, though they did say the man was killed elsewhere and then brought to the East Kingston woods, where the pickup was torched.)

We — and when I say “we,” I mean Freeman ace reporter Paul Kirby — also learned Kleiman was/is gay, though we didn’t see any reason to publish that fact unless it turned out to be relevant to the crime.

Then came Ginny Apuzzo’s e-mail, which was sent to both Kirby and the weekly.

Apuzzo, who runs a local group for gays called the LGBTQ Community Center, wrote that police had contacted the center, seeking any information that its members might have about Kleiman. In the same e-mail, Apuzzo wrote that “police believe the murder may be gay-biased.” In other words, a hate crime.

The weekly simply took Apuzzo’s written words and ran with them. “Hate crime” in the headline. “Anti-gay attack” in the first paragraph. Sensationalism at its best — and ugliest.

If the reporter at the weekly had bothered to get Apuzzo on the phone and ask her the obvious question — “Did police really say this to you?” — he would have gotten the same answer that Kirby got when he posed that query to her. It was a sheepish response along the lines of “Uh, no, I just assumed.”

And if the reporter at the weekly had bothered to get town of Ulster Police Chief Paul Watzka on the phone and ask him the obvious questions — “Did your department tell Ginny Apuzzo this might have been a hate crime?” and “Do you believe it was a hate crime?” — he would have gotten the same answers that Kibry got: “Absolutely not” and “Absolutely not.” And, indeed, our July 31 story on the homicide carried the following sentence: Watzka said emphatically on Wednesday that police do not believe the killing was a bias crime.

In this era of instantaneous electronic communications, it’s tempting and oh so easy to simply take words from press releases, e-mails, text messages and voice mails and repeat them as facts. But that’s not journalism, that’s regurgitation. Journalism involves digging deeper, asking follow-up questions, checking and double-checking facts and being 100 percent sure of a story’s accuracy before putting it in print.

The Freeman knows this and made sure to get the Apuzzo story right before publishing it. I wish I could say the same for the weekly.



Blogger jjsmith1972 said...

follow up questions, fact checking, accuracy; These things are indeed the hallmark of quality newspaper journalism. would that the same standard applied to the City Editor's blog.
As the reporter behind the "shoddy journalism" you refer to, I feel compelled to set the record straight. I find it amusing that, in taking me to task for supposedly basing my story on nothing more than a mass email, you managed to miss the direct quote from Ms. Apuzzo right there in the fourth graf. Direct quote as in I spoke to her on the phone and questioned her about her claims in the email. Whatever "sheepish" equivocations she gave to Paul Kirby, she offered nothing of the kind to me. Ms. Apuzzo was quite clear in her affirmation that investigators indicated to LGBTQ center staff that they were looking into a possible bias motive (it should also be noted that Watzka, speaking to me shortly after the story ran said that a bias motive had not been ruled out).
As for why Watzka was not quoted in the July 31 edition, its simple, he didn't return my calls before deadline. Faced with a choice of running the story with the claim of a possible bias motive properly attributed to a civilian source, or sitting on the story for another week, we opted to go with what we had.
So, there you have it, Apuzzo was contacted, questioned and quoted. Your central criticism is patently false. If you plan to parse a story for evidence of "shoddy journalism" it helps to give it more than a cursory read through.
As for your accusation that my work represents sensationalism at its ugliest- I would have to say that particular bar has been set pretty high (or low) by the Freeman which not long ago saw fit to print in their entirety the salacious, hateful and entirely unverified rantings of neo-nazi "Yankee" Jim Leshkevich regarding the wife he murdered. Next time you choose to throw stones from your glass house remember "Accuracy, accuracy, accuracy."

August 15, 2008 at 4:27 PM 
Blogger That Girl said...

It's unfortunate that you didn't thoroughly read Jesse's story before attempting to tear it apart. As he stated above, the Kingston Times spoke at length with Apuzzo before running her comments, the e-mail mentioned in the story was sent to all members and friends of the LGBTQ Community Center, and police have yet to rule out a bias-related motive in the case.

August 18, 2008 at 3:33 PM 
Blogger Jeremy Schiffres, City Editor said...


I notice that you conveniently neglect to mention that your paper, in its next edition, had to run a front-page story that essentially was a retraction of the original. (Headline: "Police say no evidence of hate crime in East Kingston homicide.")

And you really can't couch your argument on Watzka's statement that a bias crime had not been ruled out. NOTHING is ruled out before a crime is solved.

Funny, though, Kirby had no trouble getting Watzka to say - BEFORE your initial story ran - that the killing was "absolutely" not a hate crime. I wonder why that is.


August 30, 2008 at 9:18 AM 
Blogger Jeremy Schiffres, City Editor said...

One more point, Jesse.

In your long missive, above, you neglected to concede the most important point of this whole debate: that the town of Ulster Police Department NEVER TOLD Ginny Apuzzo they thought the killing was bias-related. She simply assumed, because they came to her at all, that that was their line of thinking. That's why getting comment from Watzka (who, by the way, is ridiculously easy to reach) was SO important, and why, lacking his comment, the story should have been held.

I've worked with you, Jesse. And I know that you're a good enough journalist to understand that printing second-hand information -- ESPECIALLY relating to something as serious as a homicide -- is a risky ventue, and it will come back to bite you more often than not.


August 30, 2008 at 10:55 AM 
Blogger Jeremy Schiffres, City Editor said...

Oh yeah, one more thing:
I never, as you allege in your response, Jesse, accused you of not talking to Ginny Apuzzo. What I said was that you failed to ask her the obvious question: Did police REALLY tell you they think this was a bias crime?
Put simply, you twisted my words and based your entire arument on your misinterpretation of what I said.

August 30, 2008 at 1:21 PM 

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