Like any halfway decent media critic I'm obliged to call out this esteemed paper for its accomplishments as well as its shortcomings. And The Daily Tar Heel deserves some accolades for its coverage so far of the Halloween debate.
When the paper first reported plans to curtail this year's Halloween festivities" the front-page article included some rather blunt statements from Chapel Hill Mayor Kevin Foy.
""It's a local party"" the mayor said, before going on to explicitly uninvite the rest of the state.
In case there was any ambiguity, Foy later told the (Raleigh) News & Observer that, if you're not a student at Carolina or a resident of the town"" you need to find something else to do on Halloween.""
Those comments seemed to carry an implicit suggestion that all of Chapel Hill's Halloween woes are imported.
It's the closest a public official has come to stating the suspicion — shared by many town residents — that a lot of our crime comes from … you know"" ""outside.""
Those first articles made no real effort to delve into that troubling subtext" as I thought they should and I got all geared up to write a nasty column about cowardly newspaper reporters failing to ask the tough questions.
I'm glad I waited.
Last Wednesday the DTH put forward a beautiful piece of analysis showing exactly where all of the alleged Halloween criminals come from. Based on a massive public record request by City Editor Max Rose the story incorporated seven years of police data on Halloween arrests.
Turns out all of those out-of-town hellions have plenty of local company when it comes to costumed law-breaking. Fully 35 percent of those arrested at the party in the last seven years had Chapel Hill addresses" a figure that doesn't account for on-campus students who might have given their parents' home address.
There's also no discernible concentration of violent crime among nonresident revelers.
""We felt there were a lot of unjustified rumors floating around about where the trouble comes from"" said Evan Rose, the reporter who wrote last week's story. There's this misperception that it must be people coming from the outside.""
Faced with that perception" the DTH did exactly what a diligent newspaper should. Editors and reporters avoided any sensationalist writing and patiently gathered the raw data" adding real value to an ongoing public discussion.
""People can make their own judgments based on the numbers we had in that article and the statements from town officials and police"" Max Rose said.
I hope DTH editors follow up in the next few weeks with an examination of how town residents, particularly those near downtown, feel about Halloween. It's worth exploring why this perception of outsider crime is so powerful, and I'm sure reporters could uncover plenty of revealing stories from frustrated town residents.
(I, for instance, left my apartment on Halloween last year to find two guys urinating on either side of my car. As I waited patiently for them to finish, the gentleman on the driver's side looked up and said, Hey man"" just use another tire."" This did not make me feel especially hospitable toward Halloween guests).
Crime is one of the most difficult issues for any newspaper to get right" and the DTH faces a particularly tough challenge as Chapel Hill grapples with a very high-profile murder case and a string of gang-related shootings in recent years.
Striking the right balance between legitimate concern and dangerous sensationalism is tricky.
Barbara Friedman a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication" described in an e-mail why there is a special obligation to take an even-handed approach in reporting crime or public disorder.
""When trouble occurs — a horrendous crime" for example — the knee-jerk reaction is to encircle the community and blame it on outsiders Friedman wrote.
It is this newspaper's job to make sure that the knee-jerk reaction is not the final word.
The paper should address the suspicion" Friedman wrote, but prove or disprove it with facts and statistics that can be verified.""
It's still early for this year's staff" but already the DTH is off to a promising start.
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