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The Chattanooga Times Free Press building is located at 400 East 11th Street.
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Alison Gerber

America has never felt so fractured and frustrated, so very divided.

Last week, I was reminded of just how high tensions are — and how the media is often the flashpoint for igniting the flames.

On Monday, the Times Free Press published a stand-alone photo (a photo with no story) of two men using leaf blowers, fall leaves flying everywhere. It was a nice photo intended to capture the season. The page designer placed a headline on top of the photo that said, "Time to leave." He thought he'd used a cute play on words.

Unfortunately, some members of our community interpreted it differently. Some found the headline highly offensive, even racist.

The two men blowing the leaves in the photo were Hispanic, and some readers thought "Time to leave" was intended as a commentary on president-elect Donald Trump's promise to deport illegal immigrants. Trump's immigration policies received attention during his campaign, but coverage has continued since his election. Some felt the photo caption was deliberately placed as an insulting commentary to the Hispanic community and as an endorsement of Trump's policies.

"This kind of subtle ignorance and racism should not be normalized or even joked about," one person wrote.

"You should not be the source of hate," another person posted.

And another left a voicemail for one of my colleagues saying the photo was "the most infuriating thing I've seen in a long time." The caller told my colleague he was a "deplorable human being," "sick in the head" and didn't need to be in the gene pool.

That message, social media posts and emails underscored how offensive people found the photo headline.

I offered our apologies to those who wrote to the paper and tried to assure them that the page designer had not intended to make a political statement or give an opinion on the president-elect's immigration policy. In fact, the page designer was mortified when he realized how the headline appeared to some readers.

The lesson here is that we have to be careful about words and presentation. And that's true even in the most unexpected circumstances.

On Nov. 10, the paper ran a photo of newly elected Trump across the paper's front page. It took up the entire top half of the paper with the headline, "White House bound." One of the peel-off sticker advertisements that frequently are on the front page was placed at the top of the paper. It covered the "ouse" from "House" and the "b" from "bound." And a few readers insisted we'd placed the sticker there on purpose so the headline would appear to say "White Hound." They thought we were mocking Trump.

Sticker ads are placed by a machine; no human is involved in their placement, so there was certainly no calculated effort to cover up certain letters.

This was a reminder that not only are tensions high, some people believe the media is deliberately slanted — a belief that comes from both political sides.

Two days before the election, the paper's customer service department received two complaints from readers. One reader was disappointed because the paper endorsed Hillary Clinton. (The liberal Times editorial page endorsed her; the conservative Free Press page did not). The other reader said he was tired of how "right winged" the paper is. Also, he thinks our sports department ignores Auburn University.

So there's our dilemma. Some people read the Times Free Press and think we're right-wing Trump supporters; others read the same paper and think we're shilling for Clinton and the Democrats.

In these politically divisive times, it can feel like the media gets clobbered from both sides. It's our job to be in the middle, so I guess that's OK.

And sometimes you just have to stand in the line of fire and take the shots.

Contact Alison Gerber at at agerber@timesfreepress.com.

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