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TVThere will never be another Don Alhart.

He’s a great news anchor and a great man. He’s contributed a tremendous amount to the Rochester community. That alone puts him in a category by himself.

But there’s something he’s done that few journalists, if anyone, from the Millennial population will be able to achieve: Staying at the same Rochester news outlet for 50 years.

There are fewer jobs these days in television, print and radio, thanks to the Internet and a shrinking ad market. (And corporate greed?) These jobs also pay much less. Consider the fact there are 25-year-old television reporters in Rochester earning $30,000 a year. That’s less money than I earned when I was their age 15 years ago. (WROC had a union back then. Only WHEC has a union for on-air talent.) That’s an astonishing drop in pay, especially when you factor in inflation. I know a veteran reporter in her 40’s who wanted to come back to TV, but was only offered $35,000.

As I said in a speech a few weeks ago to the Rochester Media Association, I was fortunate to have had a choice to remain in Rochester and build a career. My generation, The Gen X-ers, is the last to be able to stay here. I equated our pay roughly to teachers or police officers (without the nice benefits). But younger journalists won’t be able to make the same choice to stay and make a decent living. They will have to move on to bigger cities. Many moved on before the wage free-fall, but at least they had a choice to stay in Rochester.

Yes, wages have dropped and jobs have been cut in many industries. Our community has felt the pain all too well. But there’s a unique consequence when journalists can’t stick around and build a career. Institutional knowledge is lost, if it’s ever really gained. Reporters will often come from more affluent families that can subsidize their earnings. Public officials won’t be held as accountable, as young reporters, even the best ones, won’t know what questions to ask or whom to ask. In the worst case, stories will be done that will hurt people through inaccuracies or imbalance.

We need a strong, thriving journalism community in Rochester. I don’t think we’re done seeing the disruption caused by digital media, cord-cutting and live streaming. There are many, many talented, hard-working reporters in Rochester. I hope they can stay.

For the second time in a week, The Democrat and Chronicle has published a flawed real estate article. This one is titled, “Walkable neighborhoods are in demand.”

The first red flag is that the piece features a picture of a street with no sidewalks.

 

Screenshot, Democrat and Chronicle website, 5/16/15

Screenshot, Democrat and Chronicle website, 5/16/15

Two of the neighborhoods featured in the article are decidedly not walkable.

The Estates at Beaver Creek in Farmington backs up to a trail. That’s apparently enough for real estate agents to sell this as a walkable neighborhood.  But WalkScore, a website rating a place’s walkability, gives this neighborhood a 6 out of 100 points, an indication this area is about as car-dependent as it gets. This tiny, semi-rural development is surrounded by high-speed roads with no sidewalks. There are virtually no amenities, such as restaurants, stores, libraries and schools, within walking distance. It’s also not accessible to public transit.

Another featured neighborhood is the Black Watch subdivision in Perinton. WalkScore gives this neighborhood 23 out of 100 points, saying almost all errands require a car. While many houses are within one to two miles of businesses, these streets do not have sidewalks or streetlights. The winding roads in the street grid mean people have to walk longer distances to get from Point A to Point B. The businesses sit on high-speed, five-lane roads. This neighborhood is also not well-served by public transportation.

The other neighborhoods featured are more walkable. Roselawn in Brighton has a WalkScore of 60, meaning it’s somewhat walkable, and it’s also somewhat well-served by transit. But Spencerport and Scottsville villages, while wonderful, get scores in the 30s, probably because they’re surrounded by more semi-rural areas.

Just because you enjoy going out for a stroll, doesn’t mean you have a walkable neighborhood. Just because you have a trail in your backyard, doesn’t mean you have a walkable neighborhood. Just because you can and do walk around your neighborhood, doesn’t mean you have a walkable neighborhood. Just because there are parks and amenities nearby, doesn’t mean you have a walkable neighborhood.

Walkable neighborhoods value pedestrians. They have sidewalks, crosswalks, lower speed limits, narrower roads and streetlights. They have destinations. They are denser. They are not designed solely around cars. They have life and activity. Pedestrians feel safe. They have places to go. They enjoy the experience of walking. These neighborhoods have almost everything one needs.

The East End scores a 91, Park Ave. scores a 75, South Wedge scores a 78, Village of Pittsford scores a 74 and Village of Fairport scores a 70. Jeff Speck wrote a whole book about what it means to be a walkable place and why these places are so valuable. It’s an awesome read and could change the way you think about how we’ve designed spaces around cars.

The D&C article was right. Walkable neighborhoods are hot. But the paper and the real estate agents seriously misrepresented what it means to be walkable. It’s not a small error, as walkability means so much to people who are passionate about making our communities more accessible and vibrant.

Note: Earlier this week, I fiercely defended the D&C for standing up for access to information. Later in the week, I took the paper to task for two bungled articles. I love the paper. If I didn’t value the institution, I wouldn’t bother writing about its work. Accountability is important for all journalists, myself included.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– You don’t often see $1.6 million homes in the Rochester area.

– The Village of Pittsford’s politics are truly insane. Twenty-five percent of its budget is for legal fees?

– If you grow up in Monroe County, you’re less likely to be married by age 26.

– Binge drinking has increased in many places, including Monroe County.

– Syracuse police have a pattern of withholding information.

– Is there science backing up Chipotle and Whole Foods on GMOs?

Here are the highest-paid CEOs of 2014.

HouseThe Democrat and Chronicle published a story titled, “Single women buying homes with more regularity.”

The piece made it seem women are suddenly realizing they can handle home ownership:

…a trend that real estate brokers said has been on the rise — single female homebuyers as a growing part of the market. Year ago, brokers said, women tended to wait until they married before buying a home. That’s not the case anymore…

“Twenty years ago, a single girl was not supposed to buy a house, because who’s going to fix something if it breaks,” (Catherine Wyble) said. “So many people had it in their heads that you don’t buy a house until you’re married. You would have to have a husband to have a house. Now, it’s not a big deal.”

You don’t say!

…Wyble, who herself is single and owns a home, said she has an agreement with a guy friend to help him with his laundry in exchange for his mowing her lawn…

Single guys want to see the garage and the basement, Wyble said, while single women are drawn to the kitchen, the bathrooms and “having the big stuff done.” Single women tend to avoid ranch houses out of fear of being more vulnerable sleeping on the ground level, she added.

After I stopped gagging, I wondered if it’s really true that more “single girls” are buying homes in the Rochester area. I decided to look up some statistics on the U.S. Census website, since this piece lacked any data to back up these anecdotes.

It turns out, women own more homes in the Monroe County. Even us single gals!

In 2010, there were 30,707 women heads of households in owner occupied units in Monroe County who were not in non-family households, meaning they didn’t live with relatives. The vast majority live alone. About 40 percent are senior citizens. This compares to only 23,091 men who are heads of households in nonfamily situations.

Single women who own houses made up 16 percent of homeowners in Monroe County in 2010, up from 14 percent in 2000. But the share of single men homeowners also went up 2 percent during this time, from 10 to 12 percent. That’s probably because the rate of married homeowners fell five percentage points.

If there was a headline defining this era, it wouldn’t be that more women are jumping into home ownership. It would be that more single people are buying houses.

Monroe County is not alone in more women owning homes. Nationwide data shows that since 1990, more single women than single men have owned homes. The rate of single women owning homes has been steady in recent years.

If more women than men have owned homes for decades, why is it still news when single women buy houses? Why has this been a “trend” for two decades?

Let’s foreclose on this bogus trend once and for all.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– I agree with Gary Craig. Thomas Johnson’s defense team did its job and took pains to say Daryl Pierson was not to blame for his death.

– Start-Up New York has only created 76 jobs and has not “supercharged” the state economy as the governor promised. What’s more, “Of the businesses currently running, however, just four came from out of state. In some cases, the companies have not even crossed county lines.”

– Dinner for two? NY bill would let dogs into outdoor dining areas.

The shooting of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri has sparked a discussion about how young black men are covered in the press.

A Twitter hashtag #IfTheyGunnedMeDown refers to what pictures the media would show of young black men killed by police officers. Would the media deliberately choose pictures of them looking like thugs?

I can’t say I’ve witnessed this specific type of bias in Rochester, but that doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. When covering a story about any deceased individual, I look for the nicest pictures available. The pictures we show are most often provided by families. Sometimes families don’t have many pictures from which to choose. (Poynter offers a good discussion for journalists on how to avoid bias in these situation when choosing photos.)

But the hashtag raised a much larger issue of how the media covers young black men. The most thought-provoking article I read was by Jasmine Banks in Root titled, “Black Kids Don’t Have to Be College-Bound for Their Deaths to Be Tragic:”

The more horrific part, in my opinion, is that we—people of color—have been exposed to this “thugs deserve to die” narrative so frequently that some of us seem to have embraced it ourselves. Instead of arguing that nobody deserves to be shot, we tie ourselves up in knots making the case that the latest victim of a law-enforcement officer’s bullet was a good kid, or that the photo the news media selected wasn’t the most flattering depiction of him…

We cannot and should not engage in discussions that look like black and brown people explaining that an unarmed person shouldn’t have been shot because they lived in a way of which we are proud. 

This article resonated with me. There are so many young, black men who are killed in Rochester. We hear grieving loved ones say, “He was turning his life around.” We hear, “He was going to MCC in the fall.” We hear, “He was a good kid and would have done anything for anyone.”

Sometimes those things are true. Sometimes they are not true. Sometimes victims are innocent. Sometimes they are not. Sometimes people are honest about their loved ones. Sometimes they are not.

It doesn’t matter.

When I was attending John Marshall High School, I was acutely aware of how the media treated urban crime. Even then, I was a news junkie. During a time of record homicides, many of them young black men, we collectively remember only one young black male from that era: 14-year-old Ralik Henton, hit with a stray bullet, dying with a bible in his hand.

In 1995, a black teenager I went to high school with was robbed, shot and left for dead on the sidewalk as he left his job at McDonald’s. The name of this murder victim is long forgotten to all but his friends and family.

When I started my first job in Rochester, I asked why some homicide cases get more attention that others. A manager told me, “Families shouldn’t look to the news media to validate their loved one.”

One some level, that’s true. The news media pays more attention to things that are out of the ordinary. Innocent victims, suburban victims and white victims are more unusual. Some crimes are simply more shocking than others.

StreetMake no mistake, however. Media bias exists. At another job, I was constantly criticized by some superiors for “doing too many stories in the city.” The message was clear: The (mostly white) suburbs matter more than the (racially diverse) city. I was dumbfounded. How can you have too many stories in a city with 210,000 people, a city with enormous challenges and numerous people without a voice? Why does the news exist, if not to tell these stories? I am grateful I was still able to do most of my “city stories,” despite the criticism.

There’s so much urban violence, we have become numb. Even if we wanted to do personalized stories on every victim, we may not find family members willing to speak. We may not find pictures. The story may not get anyone’s attention. That’s why it’s important to focus on larger problems of poverty, education, drug policy, segregation, and more. Those “city stories” also tell the story of lives lost.

Where the media devotes its resources sends a message. How it chooses to cover certain things sends a message. It sent one to me when I was in high school. It is surely sending that message to other teenagers watching every day.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– If casinos are supposed to be cash cows for local governments, why do they need tax breaks?

– Stop The Cap takes on Adam McFadden for writing a letter in support of Comcast’s takeover of Time Warner. (McFadden told me he simply hates Time Warner and Comcast does not give that much money to his group.)

– Syracuse’s mayor is exploring municipal broadband.

– Lieutenant Governor Bob Duffy has discovered Twitter. It turns out, he’s pretty good at it! Even better, his boss hasn’t tried to rein him in.

– The Cuomo administration is deleting all emails after 90 days, raising issues about records preservation.

– The New York Times editorial board calls on Cuomo to stop trying to throw his Democratic primary challenger off the ballot.

– This is why call centers are bad economic development. Xerox is laying off 468 people in Houston.

– An orthopedic surgeon writes about the growing number of children who have sports-related injuries. His advice to parents is to chill out.

– A mom is reading her emails on her phone while her kid plays at the park. Give her a break!

This morning, the mug shot of a woman arrested for prostitution in Wayne County was plastered on Facebook and Twitter.  The comments below her picture:

“Ive been drunk once or twice, however, never THAT drunk!”

“Did men actually pay for that??????”

“she looks like she regularly makes excellent life choices”

“Looks like she banged her head one time too many on the headboard”

Mug ShotThe woman’s arrest appeared in the news after the Wayne County Sheriff sent out a press release. In recent weeks, the Monroe County Sheriff has sent out two press releases about prostitution sweeps in Henrietta. Mug shots of the women were similarly displayed on news websites and social media, as well as in some news broadcasts.

While there’s no question prostitution is illegal and the arrests are public information, there are several reasons police and the media may want to rethink how they report on this issue.

A lot of people are arrested for a lot of things on a daily basis without press releases alerting the media. Rochester police don’t send out releases on prostitution arrests. So why do the Monroe and Wayne Sheriffs offices think prostitutes are so newsworthy? Furthermore, where are the mug shots of the johns and pimps?

There is a movement in New York to treat prostitutes as victims. They are often sexually abused and assaulted. They are often addicted to drugs. There are special courts set up to deal with their charges, while also helping them regain their lives.

Police and the media haven’t caught on. Cops still send out these press releases and the media still parrot them without question. News organizations have policies about not reporting the names of sexual abuse victims, so it’s worth asking why they’re so comfortable showing the mug shots of prostitutes. At the very least, news outlets could be asking themselves what purpose this kind of reporting serves.

I understand that prostitution is not a victimless crime. The women who sell their bodies are hurt. In the case of streetwalkers, the neighborhoods where they do business are hurt. Underage girls and boys are being trafficked in the sex trade.

But most of the reporting of these press releases appears to nothing more than the salacious shaming of downtrodden women.

 

Links of the Day:

 

– A TV reporter writes about his struggle with mental illness.He also discusses how the media does a bad job reporting on mental health.

– Bob Duffy regrets leaving Rochester “when he did” and insists Buffalo didn’t really get a billion dollars.

– Suburban school districts spend nothing on parent engagement. RCSD spends millions. Some say that’s not enough.

– 7 things to know about Common Core tests, which start this week. Also, these tests count for teachers, but not students.

– How the wine industry spread across New York state and grew into a $4.8 billion business.

TelevisionConsumers have noticed cutbacks in newsroom spending and they are increasingly abandoning traditional media. These cutbacks leave news organizations less capable of monitoring companies and business.

Those are the findings of Pew Research Center’s annual State of the Media report.

Consider:

– Television news coverage of government has dropped by half since 2005. Traffic, weather and sports now make up 40 percent of the content, which is not a good sign, since those things can easily be found by a variety of other sources.

– “Regular local TV viewership among adults under 30 fell from 42% in 2006 to just 28% in 2012.”

– Cable news is more “cable talk,” with the delivery of traditional news stories dropping 30 percent from 2007 to 2012.

– Nearly one-third of study respondents said they abandoned a news outlet because it no longer delivers the content they expect.

– “Campaign reporters were acting primarily as megaphones, rather than as investigators, of the assertions put forward by the candidates and other political partisans.”

– Figuring out a viable digital model is still a challenge for news organizations, which are failing to grab huge shares of the online ad market.

The findings suggest news outlets have yet to find the sweet spot for producing quality news and balancing their budgets. If we don’t find it, consumers will continue to jump ship.

Links of the Day:

– If New York City is allowed to test speed cameras, it’s only a matter of time before they come to Rochester.

– Cuomo’s top cop double dips. I’m not sure why this is such a big deal, considering it’s happening all over the state. Lt. Governor Bob Duffy is among a plethora of retired law enforcement personnel allowed to collect their pensions and salaries.

– Before they decide on gay marriage, let’s look at the marriages of the Supreme Court justices.

– NFL players are subjected to different medical standards than the rest of us.

While driving in the car yesterday, I heard a radio reporter say police were withholding the names of two women charged with prostitution because they may be victims. The women were charged in an investigation of a Henrietta massage parlor.

That raises some ethical questions for the news media, which does not report the names of people who are victims of sex crimes. But it does report the names of criminals.

Are all prostitutes victims? How is the media to know which are victims and which are hooking of their own free will? Should these alleged prostitutes have been charged at all?

Gary Craig of the Democrat and Chronicle did a great series on this issue:

Prostitutes are arrested at a far greater rate than the “johns” who pay them for sex or the men and women who may be collecting the money and demanding they continue working.

Multiple arrests of trafficked prostitutes instill a distrust of law enforcement and add further proof that the individual controlling them is a protective ally, some activists say.

“The worst thing you can do is really victimize the victim,” said Andra Ackerman, a Monroe County prosecutor who previously headed the state’s sex trafficking prevention operation.

The way the Henrietta massage parlor workers were treated was far different than the young woman who appeared on “Wife Swap.” She made headlines around the country when she was charged with prostitution after a night partying with a Rochester lawyer, whom she apparently had known for some time. The news media reported the steamy details of their financial arrangement. I thought the 20-year-old had been terribly exploited by the entire episode.

I commend police for withholding the names of women they believe are victims. But how are they deciding who’s a victim and who isn’t? Some could make the case all prostitutes are victims – of pimps, traffickers, drug addiction, violence, sexual abuse or poverty. I also think news organizations should come up with policies for when to report names of prostitutes, given the new (overdue) sensitivity to their plight.

Links of the Day:

– How many places to do you shop to get household staples, such as food, paper products and pet supplies? Many of us go multiple places, but Wegmans and other chains want you to cut down.

– Did you know Target has an urban model called CityTarget?

– I love this story in the Buffalo News about a woman charged $400 to get her stolen car out of the impound. People stepped up to help in a big way.

A hero dog without a snout arrives in the United States.

;

The Syracuse Post-Standard ran a picture online of a woman being arrested for throwing hot grease on firefighters. The story said Fatima Darby was “emotionally disturbed” and she was taken to a hospital for a mental health evaluation.

The picture made me uncomfortable and I felt sorry for the woman.

On the one hand, the incident happened and the media reports on what happened. It put firefighters, the woman and her baby at great risk. On the other hand, I couldn’t shake the feeling the picture was exploitative – that I was watching something I had no business watching.

Nestor Ramos of the Democrat and Chronicle recently described similar feelings about the notorious “Foot Licker.” (Link is now dead on D&C site.) The man charged with fondling little girls’ feet ranted incoherently during perp walks shown on TV news. Ramos found all of the snickering about the case disturbing.

Last week, a man leading police on a car chase killed himself live on Fox News Channel.

There have been a great deal of media reports linking teen suicides to bullying. The issue has been dramatically oversimplified. The media has normalized children taking their lives because they were bullied and that could prompt copycats. Medical professionals say teenage suicide is uncommon and there are many factors.

The behavior of mentally ill people makes for sensational pictures and headlines. But do we need to show a little more sensitivity, even to criminals, if an incident involves someone obviously having a breakdown?

Much has been written about the media’s treatment of mental illness. Studies have found most portrayals of mentally ill people involve criminality or dangerous situations. But the vast majority of mentally ill people are not dangerous and can be treated.

It’s something to remember the next time you see a picture of police wrestling an “emotionally disturbed” mother to the ground. What you didn’t see was her being loaded onto a stretcher and taken to a hospital.

Links of the Day:

– Governor Cuomo has a lot riding on the Bills stadium lease. If the Bills skip town or if the state shells out too much money to get them to stay, he’ll be blamed.

– An op-ed implores the state to “fix the Erie Canal” to allow more overnight stays.

– The East Irondequoit School District was shocked to discover Medley Centre was given more time to transform the mall and not pay financial penalties.

– Rochester has the Inner Loop. Syracuse has I-81. Buffalo has the Skyway. Take ’em down.

Public markets across the country have been revived.

Links of the Day:

– The journalism world was jolted by news the Times-Picayune in New Orleans is cutting staff and publishing only three days a week. Newhouse Newspapers announced the same move for papers it owns in Alabama. The company also owns the Syracuse Post-Standard, a foreshadowing of things to possibly come for that organization.

The news was startling because the Times-Picayune won a Pulitzer for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina (much of that coverage was online). The outlet led national coverage of the disaster. More recently, I’ve been awed by its amazing and disturbing coverage of the state’s for-profit prisons.

Of course, Newhouse is spinning this as a positive thing. Online coverage will be beefed up! We’ll bring you more news! Erik Wemple at Washington Post points out:

Bolded text added to highlight Latin-rooted corporate nonsense. Strikes me that if you reallocate to accelerate, you necessitate more people, not fewer people. The memo rhetoric is just another variation on the we’re-going-to-do-more-with-less cant that fools no one and insults everyone, every time.

While I agree with the assessment that cutting journalists does not lead to a better product, I don’t mourn the loss of print. I haven’t read a printed newspaper in a long, long time.

A newspaper doesn’t go away when print goes away. I often wish print would go away now. Print can force reporters to write a certain length. Print can force newspapers to hold stories because of space needs and the needs of the front page. Print can force reporters NOT to write as much as they would and could because of false constraints.

But a lot of people still read print and it’s paying a lot of bills. For now. Not publishing every day doesn’t have to be the end of the world.

– I bet a lot of newspaper reporters are sending their resumes into Warren Buffett-owned outlets.

– After reading this column in the Buffalo News, I’m convinced I’m the only person who’s not excited by the prospect of a death fall into the Niagara River.

– This is a little scary. Ohio’s governor is letting businesses draw a lot of water from Lake Erie.

 – When should a students off-school-grounds conduct be punished in school?

Links of the Day:

snark·y

adjective /ˈsnärkē/
snarkier, comparative; snarkiest, superlative

  1. (of a person, words, or a mood) Sharply critical; cutting; snide

– Warning: This is a snarky blog post. 

The governor’s staff wrote a lengthy memo outlining the things they don’t like about an Albany TV anchor and blogger’s work:

A top aide to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo assembled a 35-page dossier on the work of an Albany political reporter considered hostile to his administration, highlighting any shred of criticism in a document that reflects the intense sensitivity of a governor on the brink of taking the national stage.

The document was provided to BuzzFeed by a New York City political operative who said he believes it reveals Cuomo’s “scary dark side.”

(snip)

The file, composed of highlighted and annotated blog items by Elizabeth Benjamin, one of Albany’s dominant political reporters, paints a picture of an executive branch that’s particularly averse to hints that Cuomo could be, as is widely assumed, conidering running for president in 2016. The document focuses particularly on seven items it describes as “GENERALLY SNARKY…”

The dossier is disturbing on many levels. It bolsters the notion of Cuomo as a control freak. Trying to shut Benjamin up by going to her bosses is particularly offensive. It shows a lack of respect for the people tasked with holding the administration accountable and informing the public.

I was also bothered by the term “snarky.” Sarcasm, cynicism and biting criticism do have a place in journalism and analysis. There’s no rule that says reporters have to be sweet and nice to politicians. Furthermore, when “snarky” is applied to a woman, it brings to mind the “b” word. Snarky men are smart and witty, if not a little arrogant. Snarky women are…you know.

Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto is on a radio program right now saying it’s common for politicians to call reporters’ bosses to complain about stuff they don’t like. “It’s a standard course of business in Albany, Washington…everywhere…to characterize it as something else is a distortion.”

The general rule among reporters is when a person in power calls your boss, you’re doing a good job.

– There’s a meth boom in Central New York. It involves driving around with soda bottles filled with harsh chemicals.

– A student at Georgetown University says he was not prepared for college. He blames his teachers at a D.C. charter school who focused on rote memorization, not critical thinking and writing. He says they had low expectations for him. One thing not mentioned: the impact of the concentration of poor students. If this student had attended an economically-integrated high school, he would have been exposed to higher-level students before college.

Cybercrime is a myth. 

Buffalo is mad it was left off a Rust Belt Chic list.

A Dansville 6-year-old was left on a bus by himself for less than 10 minutes by a forgetful driver. The incident scared the little boy and made local news headlines.

A quick search of “child left on bus alone” yields dozens and dozens of news stories from all over the world. The most troubling and egregious incidents involve children with special needs. This happens so often, a company came up with an alarm system to prevent kids from being abandoned.

Leaving kids alone on buses is terrible! Drivers who do such a thing should be disciplined and maybe even fired. Every case is different. It’s entirely appropriate for news organizations tasked with holding government accountable to question officials about policies and procedures.

While this can be upsetting and scary for children and parents, virtually none of these incidents resulted in any physical harm. A child getting asphyxiated because of hot temperatures on a yellow school bus is extremely rare.

But in one South Carolina news report, a parent vowed to drive his children to school every day, even though thousands of children a year die in car accidents and almost none die on school buses. At what point are we losing perspective?

I suspect the sheer volume of “kids-abandoned-on-buses” stories has a little bit to do with something that has had a profound impact on our society: the fear of something bad happening to children left alone for any length of time, no matter how small the risk.

Update: A company compiled a list of incidents – ones that make the news. This really does happen a lot.

WGRZ-TV, the NBC affiliate in Buffalo, has decided not to show video of the ill LeRoy teenagers. This statement was read on air, according to a staffer there:

Regarding the LeRoy story, we want to tell you about something we’ve decided here at 2 On your Side.  The doctors involved in this case have said that part of the problem is that the media is constantly replaying video of these girls on the news, and the stress of being on TV, even after the interviews have ended, are making things worse for them.  2 On Your Side not only takes its journalism seriously, we also take seriously our role in our community.  And if not showing the teens and their tics will help, then we’re in.  We have decided, until or unless some other diagnosis is realized, that we will not be showing the video of the girls and their tics.  We will continue to follow the story as we have from the start. We’ll talk to doctors, school administrators, and parents.  Now, we can’t control all the media, even our own network’s coverage of this story, but we can control what we do and we have decided to do this because the doctors say its best for the kids in this situation.

It’s unusual, but not without precedent, for news outlets to stop airing video that has already been seen multiple times. After 9/11, many news outlets decided not to air video of the planes crashing into the towers, believing it was gratuitous and disturbing to viewers. After the crash that killed five Fairport teenagers, some news outlets decided to stop airing video of the wreck, because it was upsetting to families and no longer necessary to tell the story.

As for WGRZ’s decision, I can see both sides. On the one hand, the girls themselves are continuing to give television interviews. Their parents, to my knowledge, have not complained to news outlets about use of footage. I am also unaware of any medical professionals directly reaching out to television stations asking them to stop. There is still intense interest in the case. Showing the girls’ distress in context can be helpful to a story. And, as one person said upon learning of this decision, “The genie is out of the bottle.”

On the other hand, we are talking about young girls, some of whom are not old enough to make decisions for themselves. The superintendent of schools and at least one of the doctors who has treated the girls have said the media attention is making the girls’ symptoms worse. There are also questions of sensationalism. The media is treating the illness as a “mystery,” because non-medical professionals and the girls’ families have rejected the conversion disorder diagnosis. There is a place for skepticism, but should journalists take the conversion disorder diagnosis more seriously in the absence of other medical evidence?

This is a fascinating journalism ethics discussion. Sometimes, there is no right or wrong. What are your thoughts about news coverage of the case?

The LeRoy Central School District sent out this statement to the media today (emphasis added by me):

 This morning, without any prior notice to the District, camera crews from a number of media sources, including both national and local outlets, entered District property for the purpose of filming an unidentified individual taking soil samples.

It is appalling that whatever group or entity employing this individual, as well as the media outlets participating in this effort, chose to conduct themselves in this way – which can only be characterized as grandstanding. Not only was this criminal activity which forced the District to call in local law enforcement to maintain the security of its property, it disrupted the District’s preparations for a weekend music event involving students from over twenty-two schools as well as other student activities. No legitimate organization would function in this manner.

As previously indicated, the District is working in conjunction with local and state agencies relative to this matter. Based upon the results from testing already conducted at the District as well as review of other information from multiple sources, environmental factors have not been identified as a cause of the symptoms that have manifested in some students. Testing conducted with rogue samples is of no scientific value, as it is not conducted in accordance with scientific methodologies and safety protocols utilized by reputable environmental experts in all testing situations. In fact, such actions could hamper the coordinated effort already underway by the District in conjunction with environmental, health, and safety experts to address this matter. The District will continue to provide information with respect to these efforts as it becomes available.

Local law enforcement will continue to monitor the security of the District’s property.

I have no idea which media outlets or individuals were involved or if the characterization of the incident by the school district is accurate. Media cannot be blamed for covering the LeRoy girls extensively. The families, devastated by the girls’ illness, have sought this attention. The LeRoy community is very worried about what’s going on.

But don’t we already know what’s going on? Doctors have made a diagnosis of conversion disorder, yet many are still referring to the situation as a “mystery.” There has been no other plausible explanation. People suspected the HPV vaccine caused the tics, but the Democrat and Chronicle reported few of the girls got the shot. Erin Brockovich suspects environmental causes, but that theory has been debunked by the state and there is no new proof.

Conversion disorder is a psychological issue that manifests itself in the body. The New York Times did a story in 2006 about brain images showing it’s a real disease. The article also noted there is much we don’t know about it:

Conversion disorder has long been a troubling diagnosis because it hinges on negative proof: if nothing else is wrong with you, maybe you’ve got it.

This has led to some obvious problems. For one thing, it means hysteria has been a dumping ground for the unexplained. A number of diseases, including epilepsy andsyphilis, once classified as hysterical, have with time and advancing technology acquired biomedical explanations.

Such specious history makes patients skeptical of the diagnosis, even though the rates of misdiagnosis have gone down. (One widely cited 1965 study reported that over half of the patients who received a diagnosis of conversion disorder would later be found to have a neurological disease; more recent studies put the rate of misdiagnosis between 4 percent and 10 percent.)

Are the LeRoy teens part of the 4 to 10 percent? We don’t know. We also don’t have any proof to suggest otherwise.

It’s entirely appropriate to continue monitoring the developments in this case. There’s a place for skepticism of the scientists, doctors and school officials dealing with this crisis. There is also a place for facts.