Live blogging Minnesota News Council – The limits of MySpace

This is a continuation of live-blogging the Minnesota News Council hearing. The first “case” (against KSTP) has been decided. Follow along here.

sheda.jpg

The next case is bound to be heart-wrenching for everyone(Update: Here’s a PDF file of the story documents). A father complains that a TV station unfairly used the death of his soldier son in Duluth as a case of post-traumatic stress syndrome and inappropriately used information on MySpace. Using MySpace information is increasingly common for newsies. Journalists are being encouraged to use it as a source — as this article from the American Journalism Review attests. It’s not without risks, however.

The general parameters of this case are covered in an earlier post here. There are also some very insightful News Cut reader comments attached.

One of the pieces of “evidence” attached with the packet for News Council members is a hand-written letter and a picture of his son’s grave.

(Latest blog entry is at the bottom)



1:22 p.m. – The story video is being played. The Sheda family has left the room. The story is mostly about PTSD. There is a reference to Sheda, that he may have suffered from PTSD, citing an entry on MySpace.

1:27 – “They never called us,” Tony Sheda tells the News Council. “If they did, we could have told him what a happy-go-lucky guy he was. He made some mistakes that night. The pain they caused our family is terrible.

He had a blood alcohol content of .24. “Adam didn’t go in there, waving a gun and saying, ‘kill me.’ He waved $100 bill and asked to join the party. They took his money, beat him, and then shot him.

“The worst is the slander they did to a fine American soldier. Just imagine what we felt like around the holidays. Just imagine if they’d said that about your son or your daughter. Adam wasn’t perfect, but he didn’t have a death wish.”

“He was in Iraq and when he’d come back from a mission, there was a 10 meter diving board that was off limits. The last week he was there, he climbed up and jumped off. They caught him and he was busted to E-5. That was Adam.”

Mrs. Sheda: “She (Reporter Barbara Reyelts) used Adam to make a point. She never talked to any psychologist. How could she make that statement that he was having post-traumatic stress disorder? I’m not saying he was or wasn’t, but how could she say that?”

1:38 p.m. David Jensch, news director of KBJR speaking. Says the station did contact the Shedas early on, but they declined to talk. Says veterans assistance group asked the station to do the story because PTSD was not being covered or talked about in Duluth.

“The Sheda story was covered by all media outlets, and was the best example of all veterans experiencing emotional wounds. It wasn’t about PTSD. Our story never said that Adam Sheda suffered from PTSD; we could never have known that.

Was it fair to report he had a death wish based on a MySpace post. What was reported, the manager says, is he may have had a death wish. “Barbar Reyelts has never reported that Adam Sheda had a death with.”

“Responsible journalists seek both sides of the story, which is what Barbara Reyelts did,” he said. “Responsible journalism seeks input from all sources. This was done. This story has merit. It was produced in cooperation with people who work with veterans who think these issues are still being ignored.”

Sheda rebuttal: “Here we go again. When Adam was killed, we refused interviews. But that was in July, five months before he was killed. They could’ve called us then and told us they were running the story.”

“They never asked,” Mrs. Sheda said.

Disputes KBJR manager’s assertion that the issue was mentioned on blogs. “I’ve seen some scary stuff written on blogs,” Mrs. Sheda said.

Mr. Sheda says he was drinking because they couldn’t drink in a Muslim country. “I’ve written stupid stuff and that was a stupid thing. But I’ve written that ‘cookies are to die for,’ but that’s not a death wish.”

“Why did eshe need to use Adam?” Mrs. Sheda said. “It was pretty sensational.”

“You speculate on blackjack. You speculate on a horse? You don’t speculate on a fine young man like that,” Mr. Sheda said.

1:50 p.m. Half of council members are looking down.

1:52 – David Jensch, news director: More involved than just a MySpace posting.

Council member Jane Berg asks if there’s any other soldier’s family that was willing to have their soldier’s story told?

“Not that I’m aware of,” says Jensch.

1:55 Council members are asking when a veterans agency official asked them to do the story. Jensch said he didn’t know. Mr. Sheda says he knows the official, he presented the flag to the family at the funeral.

1:58 Council member asks if any media asked to interview them in the months after Adam’s death. “Last summer was lost to us,” Mr. Sheda says.

He’s asked if the reporter had contact him, would the family have spoken.

“If she said Adam had a deathwish and we would’ve known that context, it would’ve been nice to give our side of the story, but if she’d called and done that, there would’ve been no story,” he says. ”

2:03 – Member Lorin Robinson to Shedas: Asks about a $40 an hour job. Did he plan to go back to work?

Mr. Sheda: Yes. Then talks about Adam donating a medal worth $1,000 to the air museum in Duluth. Says Channel 6 covered the ceremony despite being asked not to attend. “And they shoved a microphone in my face.” (See story here)

2:09 Council member: Had the whole incident not happened and Adam not have died, would the series have been done?

Jensch: “Yes.” But says he doesn’t know if the person who works with veterans pitched the story to the station because of the Sheda case.

2:12 “Was Myspace writing used in any other media?”

Jensch: “Extensively”

“In hindsight, would you have called them in October and November and said, ‘we’re doing this?”

Jensch: “Yes. I don’t think the reporter expected this level of sensitivity in the case. Everything that could be said about the Sheda case had been said. This reporter’s story was focused on the other couple. If I’d been editor, I’d have caught that but I wasn’t.”

Sheda to Jensch: “Did you say awhile ago that Adam struggled in Iraq…”

Jensch: “It appeared that….”

Sheda: “What does that mean, ‘it appeared?’ He loved being in the service.”

Justice Gilbert says, “we’re not going to get in an argument here.”

News Council comments

Elizabeth Costello – I appreciate the story because we don’t do enough to show what these young men do in Iraq. Says she’s not sure Adam was the best choice to show the kind of problems soldiers are experiencing. The Shedas were not contacted for this piece, “I think it would’ve been prudent to do that and give them the opportunity to talk about their son. Maybe it would’ve made the story richer.”

“As journalists, it shouldn’t be up to us” to make the determination that the MySpace writing was indicative of emotional issues.

Roberta Johnson — I think there’s a liberty that journalists take to interpret data in a way that it shouldn’t be interpreted. You really have no right to make a conclusion because youre’ not an expert. Ethically, that shouldn’t be allowed. “It isn’t your choice.” Psychologists are trained; journalists are not. (Bob notes: Scroll back to the archives of News Cut and find “elusive local connection.”)

Steve Schild – I don’t think the story is perfect, but I don’t question that there’s a connection between PTSD and the troubles in people’s lives. “It’s an important story and Adam Scheda was a part of that story.”

Noelle Hawton: “I don’t see the link between PTSD and his murder. You can’t make a judgment based on one MySpace entry. They inferred he had it and there was no proof he had it.”

Heather Harden: “PTSD is an important story to do. Part 2 of the story was excellent. Part 1 was bothersome to me. Mr. Jensch you said the story never said he had PTSD, but that’s disingenuous… In my opinion Adam Sheda was just plain murdered. What the media will not say that we all now is a drunk 26-year-old is a pretty normal event.”

“I’ve seen media drawn to a drunk 26 year old like rabid dogs to raw meat.” Calls the use of MySpace to conclude Sheda had a death wish “embarrassing.”

Issa Mansaray: “I don’t see the link in how he was killed in PTSD. It creates a problem for journalists coming into the profession. How should they cover stories like this?”

Al Zdon: “I think Mr. Jensch is careful to draw the distinction that the story… generally was about re-entry into the community after combat.” Says the use of MySpace was “pretty crummy journalism.”

Sheda rebuttal – “Done professionally, a story on post-traumatic stress would do a great story. Have it done with doctors. You don’t have to use a certain person. The minute Adam Sheda’s name was mentioned, it was like flies to dead meat. They could use that same time and have a good story and maybe it would help veterans. But a story like this didn’t help veterans.”

Mrs. Sheda: “I realize you need a hook when you do the story, but using the same footage as when Adam was murdered doesn’t make any sense.”

Jensch rebuttal – “It’s an important story and it’s hard to get the public’s attention. The local angle is an important way to drive home a point.”

THE VERDICT

1. Was it fair to use Adam Sheda as an example in a story about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)? Yes: 8 No: 9

2. Was it fair to report that Adam Sheda had a death wish based on a posting he made on his MySpace account? Yes: 7 No: 10

Analysis – Very scary (to me) that there are 7 people here who thought saying someone may have had a death wish based on a single MySpace posting by a soldier in Iraq was fair.

  • bsimon

    “Very scary (to me) that there are 7 people here who thought saying someone may have had a death wish based on a single MySpace posting by a soldier in Iraq was fair.”

    How would you describe the makeup of the group? Are they all part of the media, or are there non-media people there too?

  • Bob Collins

    I didn’t recognize a lot of people. Some are ex-media types. Guys like Fladung and Beal. Al Zdon etc., are pretty recognizable.

    The most impressive — this is obviously my opinion — dissections came from Heather Harden, a former journalist I think who is — or was, not sure — the Bloomington City Council.

    The MySpace thing is a total crock for a number of reasons. First, “may” doesn’t absolve you of anything, any more than “alleged” does. And I was taught at a young age that if you can say “may” in a news story, you can also say “may not”.

    So the word really provides no legitimate cover.

    I mean, holy smokes, think about it! A 26 year old soldier in Iraq talking about drinking until he’s dead constitutes a death wish. It may. It may not.

  • http://wcco.com/jasonblog Jason DeRusha

    Bob: What did the report actually say? It’s hard to judge without seeing it.

    And did the MySpace page have more clues other than the one statement about wanting to drink until his heart stopped?

    You could argue that anyone professing a desire to get all-on wasted does indeed have a death wish… but that’s more of a statement on our easy-going attitude about drinking. I might have written it to say that he wanted to escape life overseas at the end of a bottle of booze… or just pulled the quote from MySpace and left it at that. It’s easy to second guess, of course. A good learning opportunity.

  • bsimon

    “I didn’t recognize a lot of people. Some are ex-media types. Guys like Fladung and Beal. Al Zdon etc., are pretty recognizable. ”

    Thanks for the followup. I wanted to make sure before posting a knee jerk response like: if 7 of the 17 people on the panel think its ‘fair’ to use the myspace post in that story, perhaps there’s an explanation for why the public has such a low opinion of the media.

  • Bob Collins

    bsimon: Well, the sad part is people think there’s THE (singular) media, so stuff like gets translated as being some sort of SOP, which it really isn’t.

    Jason: That was really the crux of the qeustions, was there anything OTHER than MySpace to suggest the guy had a death wish. And there was not.

    But I think Ms. Harden’s observations about the media flocking to drunk 26 year olds has some merit to it.

    I think more troubling is the assertion that because the reporter — and let’s face it, this wasn’t an accident — said the person “MAY have had a deathwish” that “we never said he had a deathwish.”

    That’s about as horrible a journalistic defense as exists, I think,

    The sad part for all involved, is the story as a whole was a pretty good story, I thought about the emotional problems of vets.

    The reporter basically used the Sheda case as an unnecessary hook to create local interest — the case was a big deal in Duluth. She didn’t need it and it’s another reason why I hate “pegs” so much. If the story is good and compelling, you don’t NEED the local victim (this ignores that the reporter already had a couple to talk to).

    You’ve got a community with soldiers still alive, you’ve got an obvious national problem of adjusting back to civilian life, you’ve got experts. What else do you need?

    It’s cases like this where I think what is revealed is an underlying lack of respect for the intelligence of the audience. A good story isn’t a good story because it has a local angle. A good story is a good story because it’s a good story.

  • Bob Collins

    I stuck a link in the post to a PDF file with some of the documents surrounding the story.

  • http://wcco.com/jasonblog Jason DeRusha

    Reading the story, it’s even more squishy than I thought: “It’s been said that Sheda may have had a death wish based on a posting he made on his MySpace account.”

    I disagree, though, with Bob’s point about the local angle. While the story may indeed be compelling without a local angle, a story with a couple doctors talking about PTSD is likely to be BORING. People care about people they know. That includes neighbors and members of our local community. I suspect people would not pay much attention to a couple doctors talking about PTSD. They would pay attention to soldiers talking about it, family members, or an example of a local tragedy.

    You just can’t make things fit as an example of what you want it to fit. It seems the reporter was led astray by an “expert” suggesting a link that may or may not have existed.

  • Bob Collins

    //y with a couple doctors talking about PTSD is likely to be BORING. People care about people they know.

    I said the story involved mor than just doctors. But the people already have people they care about…the people who haven’t yet come home.

    I’ll bet tonight on the local news, I won’t know 100% of the people who are on. Do I REALLY care more about them because they live there? I realize that mentality exists in newsrooms. I’ve talked about it before. The TC media practically ignores everything 11 miles East of downtown St. Paul because it crosses a geographical boundary of a state. That’s crazy. They’re people with stories, too. But that mentality dominates most newsrooms and it’s not just Minnesota. Crazy stuff.

    On the other hand, we disprove our own assertions in that regard. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be telling the story of Iowa floods. They’re not us. They’re Iowa.

    The World Trade Center didn’t need a dead Minnesotan for us to care about it.

    Basically, Duluth’s station figured only a Duluthian would make people care about PTSD. Utter nonsense. A good reporter can make a good story good without those tricks. And I have to say, if a reporter can’t make the PTSD story interesting to people, that ‘s a person who needs to be in another line of work.

    If you’ve got a good local person, fine, I have no problem with that. But I’ve seen more than a few great issues get the big thumbs down from editors because it didn’t have the ELC — elusive local connection.

    Hey, if there were a study out today about Minnesotans favorite ring tones — most of the media here would be all over it and somehow pull muscles while trying to contort themselves to define it as news. It’s not. It’s garbage masquerading as news simply because of the ELC.

  • Becky Gamache

    The saddest part to me was that if Ms. Reyelts (reporter) would have done a little bit more honest reporting, she would have had a great story. PTSD to soldiers returning from combat is a HUGE problem! It usually takes the form of blowing all their money, using drugs or alcohol, and other relationship problems with loved ones, to name a few. Did Adam have a death wish? Absolutely not! Was he drinking to forget the horror he witnessed? Probably! Why not go with that angle and talk about the common problems soldiers are experiencing and not go to the extreme. Ms. Reyelts is a shoddy reporter at best, so we are not surprised by her lack of journalistic integrity.