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The Daily Tar Heel

How to critique the source and the story

In the past month or so, you’ve read a lot about housekeepers, their management and the “sit-down” policy in this newspaper.

This is good.

Coverage of the policy, which requires housekeepers to get permission for extra breaks, should be the DTH’s sweet spot — it’s an issue readers are talking about and the paper is in an ideal position to cover.

But not all of you have been happy with what you’ve read.

An Aug. 31 story, “Righting the Ship,” by three-year writer and current University Editor C. Ryan Barber, has received mixed reviews.

Several online commentators questioned the “framing” of the article, which they said belittled the housekeepers’ side of the story (portraying Employee Forum Representative James Holman as a “moustache-twisting villain”) and glorified their managers’ crackdown on unauthorized breaks.

On Sept. 1, Freshman Sarah Hirsch wrote in a letter to the editor that Barber’s story omitted “the real abuses housekeepers face on a daily basis from management.”

A week later, Junior Jim Gulledge argued the same: The story only covered half the issue.

There are certainly some aspects of Barber’s article that deserve critical attention.

The headline, for example, implied that “the ship” has already capsized, that if managers don’t do something now, somehow the whole housekeeping institution might sink.

The story also paraphrased an anonymous housekeeper who had been disciplined for breaking the policy and “offered her support of the policy and admitted guilt.”

Later, the DTH clarified that the housekeeper did not support the part of the policy with rules against sitting down without permission.

Editors need to do a better job balancing headlines’ pith with the light they cast on their stories. They also need a firm policy on when to use anonymous sources, who often bring more complexity than clarity to an issue.

But readers need to be careful to differentiate between a source with an outsize personality and the reporter.

Assistant Housekeeping Director Tonya Sell, a straight shooter and former Navy officer, did not couch her sentiments for Barber — hence the “slap in the face” comment and an implicit comparison between housekeepers and Iraqis “spitting in your face.”

“It was very much a profile piece (of Sell),” Barber said. That’s why she played a central role in the article, not because Barber, or the paper, thinks Sell is right.

That’s also why Barber took pains to point out what were Sell’s observations and what were his own, talk to a range of sources and give Sell’s critics plenty of space.

In the end, though, the readers mentioned above are right. This is a question about “framing” — what they call “angle” in the newsroom.

Barber decided to use Sell’s personal history as a window into this conflict. He could have just as easily used Holman’s, a housekeeper’s, a student’s or no one’s.

The paper might have done better to pick a frame that didn’t lean on one side of the issue, or at least pair the story with a similar profile of someone like Holman.

But no matter what the frame, readers always have to be careful not to extend their frustrations with a source onto the reporter, whose first job, after all, is to report.

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Evan Rose is the Public Editor for the Daily Tar Heel. He is a senior classics and economics major from New York, NY. Email him at