Gerber: Accusations swirl after story about meteorologist

Gerber: Accusations swirl after story about meteorologist

April 29th, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

A story about a TV meteorologist last week caused a thunderbolt response from one of the weatherman's competitors.

Mike Costa, general manager of WTVC-TV NewsChannel 9, took issue with the Times Free Press' Monday front-page story highlighting WRCB Channel 3 Chief Meteorologist Paul Barys, calling the story a "puff piece."

The story, about how Barys reported on the devastating tornadoes of April 27, 2011, also quoted NewsChannel 9 Chief Meteorologist David Glenn, but focused on Barys, who was in the accompanying photo.

Costa said in an email that the newspaper favored Channel 3 because we are "marketing partners." The Times Free Press and Channel 3 do have a partnership, but it is more about journalism than marketing.

Like many newspaper and television stations across the country, we promote each other's work, share stories and video and collaborate on stories. We also link to each other's online content. On occasion, we have shared news tips, information or sources or have bent each other's ear on issues related to journalistic ethics and whether to run or air something.

When we write stories about the weather, we use Channel 3 meteorologists for information.

But that's not why or how the story about Barys came about.

A reporter who was a member of the paper's "tornado team" first proposed the story last April because she was hearing repeatedly in the field that many people credited Barys with saving their lives. Another reporter heard the same thing. Both said they heard the names of other local meteorologists mentioned, too, but that, overwhelmingly, Barys was the name that came up over and over again.

We didn't get to the story in last year's tornado coverage - there were more pressing life-and-death stories at the time - but as we weighed topics for our one-year anniversary coverage in a newsroom brainstorming session, a reporter again brought up the idea. This time, we decided to follow up.

The genesis of that story was what our reporters saw and heard from real people.

Costa doesn't buy that.

"You have sold-out the integrity of what was a great paper for your 'partnership,'" he wrote in an email. "Best of luck to you with your partnership."

The truth is, reporters pitch stories based on what they hear anecdotally, what they see firsthand and what they find in research and reporting. They don't throw favor to the newspaper's partners or advertisers. Believe me, many of our advertising sales reps wished reporters were more inclined to get a comment from an advertiser than a non-advertiser.

But that doesn't often happen and, when it does, it's by coincidence, not design. And that's good - news and advertising departments traditionally are separated by a "wall" in order to prevent those who have a business relationship with the newspaper from unduly influencing the news coverage.

It's a tenet of journalism that, thankfully, the Times Free Press abides by.

Still, Costa feels we are favoring Channel 3 because of our agreement.

"Much like the tornadoes of April 27 affected a wide swath of our area, the warnings and coverage came from many different voices," he wrote in another email. "The focus on WRCB ... sure makes it seem the marketing aspect of your agreement has bled into the body of the journalistic aspect of your agreement."

Until two years ago, the Times Free Press had a similar agreement with NewsChannel 9. In 2010, we switched from Costa's station to Channel 3.

The two stations are in a very competitive situation, vying for viewers.

The story also stated that WRCB's ratings have jumped since last April, and that, since the tornadoes, the station has seen its best numbers in key demographics since 2003.

Channel 3 provided numbers to back that up. But Costa provided different numbers showing that NewsChannel 9 is outperforming Channel 3.

The problem is, both sets of numbers, from Nielsen Media Research, are correct. But they look at the ratings from different time periods so, essentially, to compare them is the old apples-to-oranges comparison. And the story didn't compare the two station's ratings. It just said WRCB had made gains.

Still, we appreciate Costa calling us to task as we appreciate any reader who raises concerns. Even when we do not agree, questions from readers always prompt discussions in the newsroom about how we do things and how we can improve.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfreepress.com.