Raging sensationalism?

Charlottesville’s media have been attacked recently as “inflammatory,” “sensational,” and “misleading.” Among the accusers are Charlottesville High School students — including a group handpicked by principal Bobby Thompson and trotted out for the cameras.

The only problem? If the villain is the Daily Progress, which seems to be the implication— the stories it has published just don’t fit National Enquirer standards of sensationalism.

After several white and Asian UVA students were brutalized by bands of local youths in a series of allegedly unprovoked attacks, police said in a January 29 Progress story the attackers had called out racial slurs to three white victims. The paper also reported that one victim was called “preppy UVA boy.” 

On February 2, City Police Lieutenant J.W. Gibson sent out a press release revealing the alleged racial angle. And the Progress quoted Gibson in a story that appeared on February 3: “Assailants did say the victims were chosen on the basis of race.” 

Should the Progress have buried these statements about black and white from a man in blue?

By February 21, Progress remorse seems to have kicked in. Under the headline, “Students condemn coverage of attacks,” the Progress ran a story airing student criticisms of the claims of a racial angle.

The Progress followed up the next day with an editorial denouncing “sensationalism” in reporting. Just what sensationalism, the editorial didn’t say, but some Progress reporters took it personally.

Reliable sources say that the normally tranquil Progress newsroom is up in arms over the implication of sensational coverage; they believe the paper is cowering under community and governmental pressure to put a smiley face on an ugly situation. 

That most of the alleged assailants are black CHS students, including football star Gordon Lathan Fields, is troubling enough. That former KKK leader David Duke’s outfit, the European-American Unity and Rights Organization, has called for prosecution of the assaults as “hate crimes” hasn’t helped calm the locals.

As early as February 8, the issue had become so heated that City officials called a news conference to play down the idea that the attacks had been racially motivated. Police Chief Tim Longo stressed that it was “premature” to discuss motive. 

While an investigation is in process, Longo claims, “I don’t think intent or motive is ever appropriately discussed outside investigative circles.”

Although the information came from his own department, Longo offers this surprising assessment: “I don’t think that should have been reported at all.”

And initial news reports about the arrests notwithstanding, Longo says subsequent stories should wait until Commonwealth’s Attorney Dave Chapman files charges. “Every day for a while,” complains Longo, “there was something in the local print media. It sent shockwaves through this community.”

Some of that coverage, however, resulted from conflicting numbers— of attacks, victims, and alleged perps— coming from the police department. On March 4, police revealed there were only nine arrests instead of 10, with one name having been counted twice.

Principal Thompson said CHS students were upset by portrayals in the Progress and on WVIR Channel 29. Thompson has told The Hook that students were concerned about the way the media had depicted the high school— “that we have mobs running up and down the halls jumping on kids and robbing them.” The Hook was unable to find such descriptions in any media reports, however.

So what is sensational coverage? Mayor Blake Caravati says he considers “the Neil Boortzes of the world” to be the “despicable” purveyors of sensationalism. (Boortz is a conservative radio talk-show host heard locally on WINA.) 

Caravati says he enjoyed the Progress editorial on sensationalism so much that he called the editor to compliment her— even though, he says, “I think it [the editorial] probably caused a lot of ire for the people that write those stories.”

The Hook asked editorial page editor Anita Shelburne for specifics on allegedly sensational coverage. “Our policy is we don’t cast blame in that area,” answers Shelburne. She says the Progress’ coverage of the attacks was not sensational, and as for whom the editorial was directed to, she says only, “We don’t criticize other media.” 

Well, not specifically.

Meanwhile, the community is left to ponder the implications of these blanket complaints about media coverage. Should the press ignore outside groups— most recently, the Anti-Defamation League— demanding action on a local issue? Should the media strike references to the school attended by any alleged assailants? And is the press responsible for writing a positive story about any institution whose members are accused of misdeeds? Most importantly, does the First Amendment require that news coverage soften facts in a story to protect the sensibilities of a community?

Perhaps this passage from the Progress editorial answers the question. “Reporting on issues of public and social concern is what the media do, and rightly so.” 




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