What is truth?

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Michele St. Martin’s take on the local media’s reporting of a young mom’s lapse in judgment

“No shirt, no shoes, boy, 4, found wandering in St. Paul.” – Star Tribune headline

“Bad mom-or just bad judgment?” – Pioneer Press headline

It was a hot story on a cold night. A little boy wandered half-naked in the early hours of Nov. 15. When the police took him home, his baby sister was sleeping. There was no parent in sight.

Opinion: What is truth?

The two metro dailies’ initial coverage of little Aaron Owens’ experience were glaringly different. Star Tribune reporter Anthony Lonetree wrote an eight-paragraph story without naming the child’s mother, a single parent. There are no direct quotes from her; her sole input to the article is the sentence: “She had been gone about an hour, she said, to give a ride to a friend.” Lonetree did mention she’d moved here from Chicago, and interviewed her mother (the child’s grandmother), who called her daughter a “good child” who attends college and works two jobs. Though a police spokesperson is cited as a source, there are no direct quotes from him. It’s quite easy to draw the impression that this mother didn’t have much to say.

In contrast, the Pioneer Press’ fuller and more nuanced 19-paragraph story by Mara Gottfried identified the child’s mother, Chatel Chase, and portrayed her as a responsible young woman who is an honor student in community college. Gottfried paints a portrait of a woman who exercised poor judgment one time, admitted her mistake, and said she has learned from it. I found Gottfried’s story inspiring: Chase is quoted as saying when she is asked how she has the energy to work two jobs and attend school (she studies mostly online, and has a 4.0 GPA), that her children (her daughter is 20 months old) are her motivation. “My kids. They’re what I live for.” Chase comes across as someone who is doing her best. She is not a stereotype, she is a person. It is easy to make the leap that like all of us, she makes mistakes.

Few of us would dispute the veracity of the old axiom, “Don’t believe everything you read.” But therein’s the rub: The Star Tribune’s story was technically correct. And so was the Pioneer Press’. Assuming that a story contains no falsehood, there are still many ways to spin it. First and foremost, when a journalist tells a story, she must decide what to include and what to leave out. It’s not uncommon to interview a source for half an hour and use a sentence or two in a story. That isn’t necessarily bad; it depends on the scope and direction of the story. The slant (the lens through which a journalist views and portrays events and people) and nuances (the tone or feeling of the story) make all the difference. Was the Pioneer Press’ story a better one because it was longer? Reporters often have little say over the amount of space their work is allotted. Admittedly, the increased words gave Gottfried additional space in which to tell a more complex tale. But Lonetree squandered space on relatively insignificant detail, such as quoting Chase’s mother rather than Chase herself.

Later, in a follow-up story, Lonetree interviewed Chase and portrayed her more fully. The headline refers to her as a “harried mom.” To me, a harried mom is one whose kid missed the bus for the third day in a row, not a young mother of two preschoolers who holds down two jobs and maintains a perfect GPA. Lonetree also managed to insert the detail that the children’s father is in prison. It is relevant to me as a reader to know that the mother is single, because it tells me she bears the major responsibility for her children. Telling us the father is in jail smacks of a bit of guilt by association. Even given the luxury of additional time and more space, Lonetree and the Strib got it wrong again. Their readers deserve better.

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