Gerber: Stories that have people talking

Gerber: Stories that have people talking

May 12th, 2013 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

You can never tell what kind of stories will get readers talking. Last week, it ranged from chickens to alcohol-related arrests.

Three stories last week generated tons of feedback:

1 The Chattanooga City Council's vote to put off until July a decision on whether to allow residents to keep up to 10 hens.

2 Signal Mountain's recently honored Woman of the Year was arrested and charged with driving under the influence and child endangerment.

3 Seventeen high school students were arrested at a party on Signal Mountain and charged with drinking alcohol under age. Ten of the students were legal adults, 18 or over, and the Times Free Press published their mug shots at timesfreepress.com.

Most readers who wanted to discuss the hen ordinance seemed solidly pro-chicken. On the other two stories, however, readers were strongly divided.

One reader said the arrest of Carrie Jones, the Woman of the Year honoree, would not have been a story at all had she not put in hours of volunteer work, which helped earn her the award. The reader argues Jones is being punished with publicity she would not have received had she not been an uber-volunteer helping her community.

Many readers jumped to Jones' defense, saying she made one mistake and questioning whether that warranted a news story.

"Curse the media and all who try to destroy lives with public humiliation," one person posted on the newspaper's Facebook page.

Even if Jones wasn't the woman of the year, her situation wasn't simply a routine DUI. She had her two young children in the car, along with a water bottle and cup filled with red wine. A Red Bank police report said she appeared to be slumped over while driving.

Some readers agreed with our decision to publish the story. One commented on the newspaper's Facebook page: "She could have killed herself, her kids and others. Not acceptable."

The story about the high school students, who attended the Baylor, McCallie and Girls Preparatory schools, drew even more comments and debate.

A sampling of reactions, posted on the newspaper's Facebook page:

"This is not news ... kids being kids."

"Wait, am I the only one who doesn't care?"

"This paper should be ashamed!"

Others felt the Times Free Press made the right call to publish the story. Some comments:

"CTFP would be dumb to not continue reporting on these sorts of things. If I ever break the law with 16 other people, perhaps I'll get in the news too!"

"Dude, it was 17 kids at once. That's a story. It's not just 1 or 2 people. That's a bust, not just arresting some poor kid for underage drinking."

And some suggested the paper reported the story because the students attended private schools.

"I wonder if the same attention would be given if it were kids from a public school? Probably not," was one comment on the newspaper's Facebook page.

Actually, we've reported on far worse about public school students. In January, we reported on the teenager who started shooting outside a basketball game between Howard and Brainerd high schools.

It's not always easy to decide what makes an event worth a story. Yes, the teenagers apparently made a mistake, as did Jones, and we've all made mistakes in life. But at the heart of the debate over whether their mistakes are newsworthy is alcohol - something we struggle with as a society.

We report regularly on efforts to change laws in regional towns and counties that restrict alcohol sales, an issue on which communities are often divided. We report on DUI laws and whether they are tough enough. We live in a part of the country where many churches tell their congregants to abstain from the consumption of alcohol.

In the case of the students, it's newsworthy because so many were arrested at once. And their arrests follow other alcohol-related incidents on Signal Mountain or involving mountain students, one in 2010 involving Signal Mountain Middle-High School football team members and another in 2012 involving the suspensions of seven staff members for consuming alcohol while chaperoning a school-sanctioned senior class trip to the Bahamas.

News is often what people are talking about. There's no doubt, based on the feedback to the newspaper, the Facebook comments on the story and online readership, that these are stories people are talking about and interested in.

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