An Alaskan journalist's perspective on local and national issues

Disclaimer: In a previous post, I have written defending this publication.  I want to be forward, because it is the right thing to do.  It was a bias that I didn’t realize that I have, and looking at this issue now, I realize just how blind I actually was

There is a problem that is systemic in a publication that the University of Alaska Anchorage (UAA) puts out.  It wasn’t until the most recent issue came out that the true level of how substandard this publication is came to light.  In fact, substandard does not seem fit the description, because what has been done recently is outright failure to the obligation that journalists have to report the news.

There are two articles that are going to be referenced.  The first is “Personal crisis led to Cheseto’s disappearance,” by Matt Caprioli.  The second is “A Joyful HanuKwanzaaMass to You!” by Alden Lee.

For those who don’t know, Marko Cheseto was a student from Kenya.  He was attending UAA as a cross-country runner, and was a rising star here.  He was hospitalized recently and lost both of his feet.  This event has made international headlines.  In the latest issue if the paper (December 6, 2011), it made headlines here as well.

The article opens stating that Cheseto was unhappy.  They have the power to read people’s minds now, and to open a front-page article with a subjective tone as well.  The article then goes through the psychological states of his mind, getting quotes from other students.  Students, and a report that was redacted.  Some of these quotes were quite interesting.

“Prior to leaving, he was looking around the apartment for his hat, but found an old (blank).  He took it and put it in his pocket.  Cheseto later told me that it was at this time that he decided to (blank). At UAA, he retrieved his own (blank), and put them all in his pocket,” Jaksha wrote.

Not only did that quote inform the readers of nothing, but it gives a very big clue as to what this article is truly about – nothing.  This entire article is filled with quotes just like it, with lots of “(blank)” statements.  It is nothing more than exploitative writing.  There is a reason that the administration made no official statement, and parts of the police report were redacted – because it is illegal for them to comment on personal matters, which was entirely what this article was about.  The article mentions that they approached the director of Residence Life for a comment, not mentioning that any comment about Cheseto’s personal life would have been a breach of confidentiality.  Perhaps it was another (blank) statement.

This entire article was nothing but throwing the personal life of a runner who has suffered a traumatic event and been scarred for the rest of his life into the public eye, which is not only none of the public’s business, but a mark of shame against this newspaper.

The worst part is that covering tragedy is not something The Northern Light always gets wrong.  If one looks at the February 22, 2011 issue of the paper, Megan Edge wrote a very informative piece about a tragedy that happened at the university, when William Ritekwiang committed suicide.  The story was short, just wrote the facts, and made absolutely no speculation.  It just told the public what the public should know.

Writing bias reports is nothing new for Caprioli.  There are several articles that were written that no only show bias, but it is obscene.  The use of anonymous sources is not uncommon.  In an article from the October 18, 2011 issue of the paper, one anonymous source was quoted saying –

“I don’t want to comment on the politics of it, but there’s definitely something going on.”

Speculative, offering no information about the topic, or any topic, and leading the readers.  This is not good writing.  One of the ironies is that in several of these articles, he is featured as an editor.  An editor of a newspaper is using anonymous sources?  There is a long-standing rule in journalism never to use an anonymous source unless no other option exists, and if you do, they had better offer some very important pieces of information.

After examining Caprioli’s writing in the most recent issue of the paper, let’s turn our attention to another writer, Alden Lee.  There is one article that really needs to be looked it – “A Joyful HanuKwanzaaMas to You!”  In it, he attacks the PC culture that has grown up around this country.  This is a very interesting topic to be examined, and there are several good writers who have examined it, but in what is supposed to be a humor column, there was this quote –

Because he is the greatest symbol for the materialistic consumption that drives holiday merchandise sales, there’ll still be Santa Claus.  Just now he’ll be black-skinned and lead his reindeer on with a lit menorah in hand craying, “On Dasher, on Dancer, on Donner and Blitzen, on Abraham, on Issur, on Dontrell and Shaundra!…”

Not only is that quote not funny, it is racist.  Flat-out racist.  Attacking the PC culture and how insane it gets sometimes is one thing, but to deliberately single-out black people is just wrong.  This went through not only his filter, but the editor, the managing editor, the layout editor, and several others.  Anybody along the way should have said that publishing something like this is wrong.  But nobody did.  It went out into an issue of a public newspaper.

Like Caprioli, writing biased articles is nothing new for Lee.  His history is a lot more vivid than his coworker, who is better at sounding professional than he does.

Welcome to college.  It’s a scramble to situate yourself, figure out what you’re supposed to be doing, find where you belong…for military veterans, it’s even worse.

That was the opening to an article from March 1, 2011, entitled “Student Veterans attempt to unite.”  That could be a very interesting topic, but the opening sentence clearly shows a bias on the part of the reporter.  Through the rest of the article, there is a confirmation bias about how the administration is hard on veterans.  This isn’t the only article that has taken this position.

Standing before a crowd of people and facing public humiliation, Staff Sergeant Tover was being interrogated.

That was the opening sentence from the April 5, 2011 article “Military students claim mistreatment by professors.”  It was the feature article on the front page of the paper.  This is another thing that is common for The Northern Light – having features of human interest stories instead of hard news.

Seeing titles like “Devout Food Dilemma” or “Parking services denies Nazi affiliation” is something that is very common on the front page of The Northern Light.  These are not news.  There is no way that one can argue for them being news.

Take a look at some titles that are featured in The Anchorage Daily News.  “Assembly votes to limit New Year’s fireworks,” “Alaskan among 4 killed in Washington helicopter crash,” ” Assembly overrides mayor’s veto of full-time parks jobs.”  Not only are those all actual news stories, take a look at some of the opening sentences in the article.

The Anchorage Assembly voted late Tuesday to prevent city residents from using  fireworks within 200 feet of a neighbor’s house this New Year’s Eve.

That is from the first article cited above.

The Anchorage Assembly Tuesday night overrode Mayor Dan Sullivan’s veto of some  Parks Department money in next year’s budget.

That is a quote from the last article.  It was professional, concise, clear and to the point.  See the opening statements from The Nothern Light above them?  See how they are not doing the same thing?  How they are deliberately spinning the information from their beginning to fit the narrative that they want to tell?

This is a shame.  It is a shame upon the entire Journalism and Public Communication department.  The worst part is that it is a shame upon UAA.  Copies of The Northern Light are being sent all over town.  A student who walks into Golden Donut can pick up a copy and see a “humor” writer insulting African-Americans, along with telling them the ugly details of a student’s life after he has suffered a horrific incident.

The fact that one can go around town and pick up copies of this paper means that The Northern Light not only represents itself to the college students, but also to the people of Anchorage.  The people outside of the college look to this paper to know what is happening at the college, and instead of finding out what events of consequence are happening, are finding out what Cheseto was thinking while he was the victim of a tragic disaster.

Maybe this is a symbol for what the news is becoming, but somebody needs to be held accountable.  Somebody needs to be taken to task.  This needs to be addressed, because The Northern Light seems to be being held to very little standard.  Journalism publications at UAA need to be held to a higher standard.

And in a lot of places, they are.  Take a look at a publication on KRUA, the school’s radio station.  It talked about the battle against the plan to massively cut back on bandwidth here at the college.  Their story was concise, to the point, and as objective as possible, just giving the facts.  It was an excellent testimony to two-sided reporting.

The Northern Light has failed its mandate to report on what is happening here at the college, and it makes the entire JPC department look bad.  It makes UAA look bad.  Something needs to be done.  As to what that is, who can say?

Nobody else seems to care, as apparently, The Northern Light is winning awards for it’s “excellence.”

Peace out,

Lefty

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Comments on: "The Northern Light fails not only UAA, but also the field of journalism" (11)

  1. Cheseto wasn’t a foreign exchange student, just a dude from Kenya who attended UAA on an athletic scholarship.

  2. Matt Caprioli said:

    Hi Eli,

    Well let us hope you only remain an opinion writer. You would be a terrible reporter. And let us also hope you read and listen more, then maybe your writing will enter the realm of acceptable. (this is one of the better things you’ve written—bravo!)

    The opening line for the Cheseto article was based off a police report where Cheseto tells an officer that he “woke up feeling unhappy.” You’re welcome to walk into the Northern Light office and read the entire police report. The only thing “subjective” about that lede is your own assumption that I can read minds (which is actually true–again, bravo).
    For this article I relied on three police reports and interviewed staff. I did not interview any students as your blog claims—thanks for preaching to me about factual errors.

    The quote you found “quite interesting” did actually convey a ton of information to the reader in the context it was in. Along with the other redacted quote, it implies that Cheseto took drugs in an attempted suicide. Most people I spoke with who read the article understood the implication; you seem to be exceptional in this case.

    I had the unpleasant responsibility of telling UAA Cheseto’s story, and I did it in a way that tried to be respectful given the circumstances. And I did a good job. The Associated Press placed the story on its national wire, ADN linked it to their site, APRN did a review on it. I heard good comments from professors and students.

    I of course would rather report on happier things, but as a journalist my job is to find and report on what concerns the community; obviously this included Cheseto’s story.
    “There is a reason that the administration made no official statement, and parts of the police report were redacted – because it is illegal for them to comment on personal matters, which was entirely what this article was about. “ Yes, bravo, it is illegal for them to disclose personal medical information. “Them” includes journalists, and I did not breach any of Cheseto’s legal rights. It’s not only legal for journalists to find information on public figures, but also, it is their mandate (yes, I can use correlative conjunctions too).
    Being an athlete who competes at the national level already makes Cheseto a public figure. That his story was picked up by hundreds of other papers simply solidifies that status. Read a briefing on media law.
    It’s troubling that you would stop investigating a matter because a public official told you so. What kind of state would we live in if reporters stopped investigating something because it made so and so uncomfortable?

    Btw, that 2 sided story you said KRUA reported was original done by TNL. bravo.

    Going into uncomfortable zones is what makes a great reporter, writer, or thinker. That you don’t go to unknown zones is clear by the risible quality of your columns for TNL.
    On anonymous sources—did you even read that article? It reported how the dismissal of the UAA engineering deans probably allowed UAF to get a much larger building. I used anonymity for the professor because HE COULD HAVE LOST HIS JOB. That is an acceptable reason to use an anonymous source. I protect sources within reasons and only when no one is willing to speak on the record. Two other professors didn’t want me to use their quotes even on condition of anonymity.
    While we’re being honest with each other, you speak in platitudes and you cannot write. That’s why your contract with TNL was terminated. As someone probably more liberal than you, I felt ashamed reading your columns, thinking that we vote for the same party. You really need to educate yourself before you attack others.
    One last thing,
    “….instead of finding out what events of consequence are happening, are finding out what Cheseto was thinking while he was the victim of a tragic disaster.” So his thoughts are somehow irrelevant?. The public should not know what he was thinking because Eli Johnson doesn’t think the public has the to know? Well the public and myself, disagree.

    • Respectful? You dragged this man’s entire personal life into the public eye, and it didn’t need to be. You cannot justify telling everybody his thoughts (according to you) when he has suffered a disaster. The public doesn’t need to know if he was pondering about what to eat for dinner. That’s like asking if your cousin likes their shoes. You don’t care, so why would they?

      Oh, about your comment about anonymous sources – it added NOTHING to the story, you hack! It was blind speculation, that didn’t give the readers anything. Remember that FRONTLINE episode where it was talking about the failings of airline maintenance? The people who spoke anonymously there were adding to the story. It was telling us important stuff. This was blind speculation, and leading quotes.

      You can insult me, but I don’t care. In the end, you are just a biased journalist, and your friend Lee even moreso. That paper is a joke, and the entire school knows it. USUAA knows it, and now the public will know it too. Sticks and stones, Matt, sticks and stones.

      • Matt Caprioli said:

        Yeah, when people repeatedly come up to you asking what happened to Marko, it’s your job to find out. How are you measuring public interest? Several news sources picked that story up–it was clearly in the public interest. Other than TNL, what paper picked up your opinion?
        And that quote captured what faculty were feeling–afraid to comment for fear of the loosing their jobs as well as their suspicions of shaddy moves by the administration.
        Biased against what precisely Eli? I don’t have an ax to grind. TNL terminated your contract–you obviously do.

      • Wow, I love this. You go on about how you have a job, and that somehow makes you more worthwhile. I don’t care. I really don’t. This wasn’t an act of spite, but an act of let’s get people thinking about something. I noticed a flaw. People asked you to know what Cheseto’s private thoughts were, here’s a thought – don’t tell them. It’s none of their business. They may want to know, but they don’t NEED to know. This is a major failing in the media that people want to know every little detail about a person’s life. You don’t have to feed into that. You can avoid what people want. It won’t sell you papers, but pandering to what has been proven to be a stupid public doesn’t help anybody.

        And by the way, did I ever say this was straight reporting? No, this is my opinion. Take a look at the header, Matt, my boy. This is an opinion column. And say what you want about me. I said my piece, and this is the last I am going to comment. You can demand proof of bias, take a look at the article. You didn’t refute Lee’s clear biased statements. You didn’t defend the clear leading article titles. You didn’t offer quotes as to how I have failed. I was thorough, and in the end, my complete and total goal from everything that I do is to get people to think. If one person thinks to themselves – huh, is The Northern Light a good paper? And they go and look for themselves, and they come to a different opinion, good! I welcome that! But the fact is, this is nothing but junk food for the mind. Human interest instead of hard news, and clearly showing bias. I hope Megan Edge has a good career. She can do what you apparently are against – just telling the public what the public needs to know. Think about it, Matt.

  3. Matt Caprioli said:

    Oh, forgot to mention that Alden Lee is one of our most popular writers. Food for thought.

  4. You point out some valid shortcomings in respect to The Northern Light coverage of Cheseto and other events. Furthermore, I often times read the latest issue and cringe at painfully long headlines and shoddy reporting. But in addition to informing the community of local happenings, I feel the TNL also serves as a lab of sorts where students can hone their news judgment, improve their writing skills, and generally find their legs as a reporter. It’s student media, after all. I’m not saying we shouldn’t hold them to certain standards, but we should perhaps give the editors constructive feedback so they can do a better job in the future. It probably doesn’t help that these folks are trying to run a publication in addition to being full time students, and there’s a constant flow of new employees and editors thanks to graduation and what not.

    On the other hand, I can’t help but notice a certain degree carelessness in your own writing. Cheseto isn’t a “rising star” at UAA. The dude has been here for years and smashed all sorts of school records. Minor detail? Beside the point? Sure it is. But nonetheless I have a hard time taking your critique seriously when you fail to get such a basic detail correct.

    • Don’t take me seriously. Nobody does. I am just a columnist who, according to Caprioli, is just a nobody who is going nowhere. I am not some kind of great writer.

      I am glad that you commented. You pointed out something good. However, what I am noticing is that there isn’t siginificant improvement. I wish more people like you would comment. People who can be constructive, critical, and in-depth. Thanks for this. I was getting bored of the other comments posted on this.

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