Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

EDITOR’S NOTE: The piece I ran Monday regarding the murder-suicide in Vermont was less about the people involved and more about lessons to learn from the situation. The subsequent discussions that followed seemed to shift that focus, so I thought it was important to update and revisit the issue. In doing so, I wanted to make it clear that I know Adam Silverman well. I’ve known him for almost half my life as a student, a colleague and a friend. He contributed to my books and he stood up for my wedding.

I didn’t really think this disclosure was necessary before, as the post was more about the issue than it was about him. Still, it’s worth pointing out. It’s also worth pointing out that I’ve known Chris Evans, who is quoted in the VTDigger piece, for many years as a student media adviser and friend. Chris, however, did not stand up for my wedding. I’m sure he would have if I asked. Now, on with the post…

The apology the Times Argus issued Monday in the wake of its coverage of a murder-suicide in Vermont should have capped the issue entirely. Unfortunately, the leaders of the paper apparently never heard of Filak’s First Rule of Holes: “When you find yourself in one, stop digging.”

In a brief recap, the paper published an article on Luke LaCroix and Courtney Gaboriault, a young couple who died in a murder-suicide when LaCroix shot Gaboriault and then himself in her apartment last week. The follow-up story included many details on LaCroix, including his status as “a popular lacrosse coach” at an area high school and how he was “well-known and generally well-liked in the greater Barre area.”

The details on Gaboriault were limited and thus some folks felt the story leaned toward favoring LaCroix. I referred to this as “He-was-such-a-good-boy” syndrome, where everyone always praises someone who died in a horrible way, never seeing anything bad the person did or at least not expressing it.

Gaboriault worked for the Department of Public Safety, as does Adam Silverman, who took to Twitter to deconstruct the story and to demand some sort of remedy from the paper. Rob Mitchell, the editor-in-chief of the paper, issued an ombudsman’s column on this issue Sunday, explaining the rationale behind what the paper published and offering an apology to people who took umbrage with the story.

It felt like the story arc was over until two things happened:

  1. Silverman took to Twitter to deconstruct and respond to the apology.
  2. The Vermont Digger, a statewide news organization, published a piece on the situation and the editors of the Times Argus spoke.

In both cases, it was like two people wanted to have “the last word” in an argument, so rather than let sleeping dogs lie, both sides picked at the tenuously healing wound.

Silverman’s Twitter feed on this did acknowledge the apology, although it also continued to note the paper’s need to do better. Yes, but it’s hard to “do better” 12 seconds after screwing up and apologizing for it. It’s also pokes at the assertion that the story was a mess but the writer and editor were not to blame for this, which he calls “a paradox.” I can’t make a call on this one either way, but I don’t know a lot of EICs who would dump a reporter or editor under the bus in a public column unless egregious fact errors emerged.

The Digger’s piece did the “media looks at media” approach, which makes sense, in that this is a public spat between a public information officer and a media outlet, who will likely need symbiosis at some point in life. The reporter gave Mitchell a chance to “fire back” (a term journalists have somehow taken to using for no good reason) at Silverman and Mitchell took it:

However, Mitchell said in an interview Monday that he does not believe criticizing newspapers is the public information officer’s role.

“It puts him and the state police in the position of becoming ombudsman of every article about crime,” Mitchell said. “That’s not to say we can’t learn something from his criticism. But there’s a line there that he needs to be careful about. There are many victims of crime in this state. It can’t just be about one or another.”

And so did editor Steve Pappas:

Times-Argus Editor Steve Pappas said Monday that the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.

“Bottom line is, I felt like it was a cheap shot,” Pappas said about Silverman’s social media posts.

This has led to additional Twitter outrage, arguments and other such kerfuffles, thus shifting the focus away from the dead people and the initial problem with the reporting.

So why talk about it here? Because there are a couple things you all can learn, regardless of which area of media you plan to enter:

  • Don’t take the bait: If you go into public relations, you will have plenty of chances to either stoke a story or let it die. When you already find yourself in an awkward position, the last thing you want is for that story to continue. Thus, when the reporter for the Vermont Digger asked Pappas and Mitchell for comments on this, the smart move would have been to say something like, “We always appreciate feedback from all of our readers with the hope of constantly improving our service to the greater Barre area.” It’s simple, true and it gets you off the dime on this. Statements like “There’s a line he needs to be careful about” are going to keep the story rolling the same way that “Yeah? So’s your mother!” will keep a schoolyard fight at DEFCON 1.

 

  • Consider the platform: I often espouse the Filak-ism of “A hammer is a great tool but I wouldn’t use it to change a light bulb,” and that applies nicely here when it comes to Twitter. I agreed with a number of the statements Silverman made on the initial coverage and I disagreed with some of the other ones both there and in the follow up he did. However, I didn’t like the use of Twitter here because the platform seemed wrong.
    If you have to use a dozen or more 280-character bursts to make a point, it can feel like a deluge of information pouring out into the public. Several folks in the Digger story seemed to reflect that issue, including Chris Evans and Pappas. I’m not sure a press release would have been the way to go here, as it wouldn’t get as much public play, but considering other platform options might have been a good idea. Twitter is more like a lead and/or a headline. If you start lapsing into soliloquies, Twitter isn’t the right platform.

 

  • Is the juice worth the squeeze?: I always ask this whenever dealing with a tough decision, in that I want to figure out if what I’m about to do is worth whatever I’m going to get out of it. It’s akin to the “Is this the hill you’re willing to die on?” question my friend Allison and I used to ask of ourselves when doing something that had heavy good and bad potential. Both sides really needed to look at this here:
    Silverman made his points and got out there on the issue, garnering an apology and a sense that the newspaper understood enough of what upset people to make the staff rethink its processes. Was it worth it to go back and re-litigate the issue in digging through the ombudsman column and thus pushing harder on it?
    The paper has to work with the state police and to at least some extent, I would guess, Silverman throughout his tenure as the PIO. Was it really worth it grousing to another media outlet about this, ticking him off again and extending the shelf life of the story? I know him well enough to know he’s not going to spite the paper, but the paper did make stuff awkward for the reporters who have to call Silverman for stories in the future. Was it worth it?
    I have my own theory on both of those, but what really matters is to what extent both parties considered these issues and then made their choices. You should also have a similar mental conversation before you make any moves as a media professional.

 

2 thoughts on “Following up on the Times Argus’ coverage of its coverage of the murder-suicide: 3 learning moments for all media students

  1. Rob Mitchell says:

    Thanks for this analysis. You are correct in that my response to Silverman in that interview was in one sense the wrong thing to do. We are earnestly trying to make use of his criticism and the broader public criticism, learn our lessons and apply them. The VtDigger question about his criticism was a part of a broader interview, yet became a key part of the story Digger wrote. Not what I wanted to focus on, but I have no problem with the question or the angle Digger took. The shame in it is that, as you say, it distracts from the real people who were affected here.
    Lesson there is that if you say something to a reporter, assume they will use it, and not necessarily the way you would.

    – Rob Mitchell

    • vffilak says:

      Rob,
      I appreciate you reading this and taking the time to comment. I completely understand the “lesson” you noted at the end of your post, as I’ve had a few similar encounters. I hope things work out for you and the paper as you move forward. We need more local journalism outlets, not fewer. If I could ever be of help, feel free to contact me.
      -Vince Filak

Leave a Reply to Rob Mitchell Cancel reply