Medill student asks an online community for help, gets attacked

Donessa Aldridge

Medill News Service reporter Donesha Aldridge couldn’t make a Lincoln Park Redistricting Meeting but still wanted to write about it, so she turned to the Everyblock Chicago online community for help. “I need a few residents’ perspective of how the meeting went for my story,” she wrote.

The you-know-what quickly hit the fan!

“Bob from Lincoln Park” and others went after the Medill grad student for her post. “Please excuse me if I question the professionalism of your journalism,” he wrote. “Why were you not there?”

Another person….

“Donesha made herself a target by openly admitting she was not at the hearing. …The bottom line is that [the] reporter did not do a good job of soliciting comments. I read her request and it could easily be interpreted to be a request for help from someone who was not interested in attending the hearing.”

And this…

“Whoa! I just saw this thread. In the words of SNL’s Cheri Oteri, “Simmer down now!!” : )”

Marcel Pacatte

Medill professor Marcel Pacatte joined the fracas and defended his student. He told Bob in Lincoln Park:

“Spare me your conclusion-jumping and condescension. It’s quite frankly none of your business why she wasn’t there — she answers to me, her editor, not to you. If you care so passionately about this important issue, maybe it would behoove you to help her tell the story rather than be so inappropriately critical of her in a public forum. The only good journalism lesson that comes from your post is proving to my students how ridiculous and prickly some people can be.”

I asked the professor about using Everyblock to get information about the meeting, and what he thought about the heated discussion over his reporter’s post:

This is certainly not the first time reporters at Medill have attempted the use the Internet as a way to reach sources. I’d be embarrassed if it were. The Internet exists and it thrives as a place where people communicate and interact and find and receive information.

Everyblock is almost immaterial to it, other than it is a place where people of a community can reliably exchange information and interact.

Same goes for email. People use it as a means to communicate. So should reporters. To expect them to do otherwise is patently absurd.

The unasked question, unless you’re someone like Bob in Lincoln park, is whether electronic gathering of information is the primary means or the only means or the best, safest, most reliable means of reporting. That answer, of course, is a resounding no. But it’s a valid tool, as sure as walking into a room filled with informed, active people would be.

The only thing I’ll encourage reporters in my newsroom — my students — to do is understand that the Internet, like life, is filled with agendaed, unreasonable, bullying jerks like Bob in Lincoln Park, and to be mindful of that.

I also emailed reporter Aldridge for comment, but Pacatte told me: “I’ve asked Donesha not to comment — on the thread or anywhere. I’m the one who picked this fight, even though it was her post, and I’m the one with the responsibility, so I prefer to be the talker on this.”

* Read the Medill News Service reporter’s post and the 48 comments that followed

Comments

comments

17 comments
  1. Richard Aregood said:

    A reporter who’s covering a meeting should go to the meeting. All the Internet huggermugger could only supplement. As for the good professor’s rant, nobody cares why a theater critic missed a performance, only that he or she has no credibility as a result.

  2. As a graduate of Northwestern and a journalism professor at Temple, I think this is an inappropriate use of the Web for reporting a story. No way to verify the accuracy of the comments. No way to determine whether the comments are representative of those in attendance.
    The professor also seems a bit prickly about the criticism. Bob’s question doesn’t seem that harsh.

  3. John Bishop said:

    To the two above posters defining “good” journalism and what a “good” reporter should do: are either or both of you reporters? Are you aware of the lightning speed at which the communications model is evolving? Do you know the New York Times is struggling on how it will survive.

    For the hopelessly clueless, the documentary, “Page One: The New York Times spells this all out in primer fashion for you. Grow up, wake up or you might get thrown from your high horses. If you think this is some unforgivable aberration, you ain’t seen nothing yet. Evolve or perish. The professor is right.

  4. John Bishop said:

    The White House traveling press corps plane seating is shrinking. Fewer papers are sending their reporters to “be” at the President’s functions; overseas particularly due to budget restraints. They rely on dispatches or “other reporters” to craft their stories sometimes. It’s not always an just a directly attributed reprint. You want to explain to me the big difference. Save the ethics lecture please. I’m just interested in how you see the difference in the mechanics being so wide in scope.

  5. just curious said:

    I’m having trouble following this. Is there a journalist in the house who can help me?

    The reporter wrote “Hello Lincoln Park residents! I’m Donesha Aldridge a reporter for the Medill News Service”

    She said she was a reporter. She said she works for the Medill News Service.

    What’s the point of all this student stuff?

  6. Sean said:

    just curious: Medill News Service is staffed, I believe exclusively, by Northwestern journalism students.

  7. just curious said:

    Sean, so Medill News Service is like a high school newspaper?

  8. stan said:

    just curious: As stated on their “About” page, Medill News Service is staffed by graduate student journalists reporting stories from the Chicago area. This makes it different than a college newspaper, which is typically staffed by undergrads and tends to focus on stories about the college itself.

  9. Don Lee said:

    I agree the should have been a better attempt staff the meeting, or at least better phrasing of the request for comment. But, professor,in this everybody’s-online-and-empowered age, telling a member of the public a reporter isn’t accountable to a reader is red meat in front of a dog that’s been starved into alighting frenzy. Nice job representin’ … fool.

  10. John Bishop seems to question my credentials. Here they are:
    –AP, Chicago
    –Newsweek, Chicago, Washington and Beirut
    –ABC, Cairo and Rome
    –ABC 20/20
    –Managing editor of philadelphianeighborhoods.com
    –Seven books on journalism
    Maybe the above don’t qualify me as a journalist in John’s eyes, but I think they do.
    All the best.

  11. wubbly said:

    Journalism schools should all be shut down. If you pay more than $10 for a journalism “degree” then you grossly overpaid. Maybe Chris Harper can open a school because he is so well credentialed, likely unemployed thus probably has less overhead.

  12. Jake said:

    Hmmm… looking at her story (linked above), it appears she did a sizable amount of reporting before the meeting, talking to the officials, and was looking for comments from the public to round out the piece.

    Not an ideal way to cover an issue, but certainly within the bounds of “acceptable journalism.” It certainly was not uncommon when I worked at a mid-sized daily to cover meetings we could not attend by talking to the players and checking the documents.

    The “sin” here seems to be one of poorly phrasing her request for input.

  13. Don Lee said:

    Bob and Marcel need to switch places. I found Bob’s responses much more measured and reasoned than Perfesser Marcel’s. Perfesser, take a grow-up pill.

  14. Bill Reader said:

    I agree that actually going to the meeting would have been ideal, but anybody who worked as a shoe-leather beat reporter knows that sometimes you have to call around to find out what happened at the meeting you couldn’t attend. I certainly held my nose and did that when there were three or four government meetings on the third Monday of the month, and I could only attend one in person (but had to write summaries of all three or four).

    What amazes me is how quick some pros are to pounce on a student so harshly. “Student” equals “still learning the ropes,” and students deserve a bit more respect in that regard from the ranks they hope to join.

  15. Wubbly,
    Not unemployed at all. Doing well, thanks.