Oh, Yeah, He Got Acquitted

December 12, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

The Sun's handling of a story about a Cumberland city official had a bookend problem: a complication at the beginning, on March 16, and at the end, on December 3.

When Teddy Ryan, Cumberland city administrator, was charged Florida with kidnapping five people and robbery earlier this year, he made The Sun's front page with a lengthy story and the big headline at the top, ''From city savior to criminal suspect.''

The headline became controversial because in early editions it was put next to an unrelated picture of Governor Schaefer with a gun, and some readers at first thought the governor was the savior and the suspect. In the flurry before deadline, the headline writer didn't see the photo, the graphics person didn't see the headline and the proof page didn't have the picture on it. An editor noticed the bad juxtaposition mid-way through the run of editions and changed the headline in later editions to avoid the mistaken-identity problem. Later about ten readers would complain about The Sun being unfair to Governor Schaefer.

As a result of the Florida charges, surprised officials in Cumberland fired Mr. Ryan after he was arrested by Cumberland police on Florida warrants. Mr. Ryan finally went on trial in Florida. On Friday, December 3, he was acquitted of all charges in Florida: kidnapping five people, aggravated assault and robbing a jewelry store of $100,000.

Nine months after the original big splash, you had to look hard in The Sun to find the outcome for Mr. Ryan. The paper used a four-paragraph wire story as an Allegany county brief on Page 2B under the small one-column headline: ''Ex-Cumberland official cleared by Fla. jury.''

This is unfair to Mr. Ryan. The not-guilty verdict should have gotten at least a headline over a bigger story on the front page of the Maryland section or even Page 1A play. There is still time to work a solid follow-up story on Mr. Ryan's case (which The Sun was attempting to do last week).

No readers complained about The Sun being unfair to Mr. Ryan in either case: either perhaps overplaying the first story or underplaying the second. The story tells a lot about newspapering.

First, most newspapers want to be both accurate and fair. In neither case was The Sun inaccurate. The problem was unfairness, to Governor Schaefer and to Mr. Ryan.

JTC Second, newspaper people are constantly being inundated with news. Some days are busier than others. It surprises some readers to learn that The Sun uses only a small fraction of the Associated Press and four general news wire series it buys. With costly news space tight, editors are always deciding what news to use and what not to use. Their focus is mostly the present and the future, not the past.

Third, follow-up stories are sometimes forgotten in this flood. The Sun is often careful about an especially crucial kind: criminal or civil charges. When news people play up big criminal or civil charges, they should think about and record what to do when the case ends -- innocent, guilty, settlement or whatever.

I'll never forgot Phil Lee's six red books. The late Phillip Lee, managing editor of the North Adams (Mass.) Transcript, where I learned the basics of this less-than-perfect science called newspapering, kept six red books in his desk. After each day's paper, he would spend two hours going through it page by page writing down future dates, stories needing follow-ups, people near death . . . and criminal and civil charges filed that day.

Each day reporters would get a slip of paper with their day's assignments, most often coming from Mr. Lee's six red books. The orderliness of all this was maddening to us young reporters, but it got the news covered for Mr. Lee and his 13,000 subscribers.

Let's end on a note about The Sun doing a good job on some other follow-up stories. Readers sometimes chide The Sun for forgetting big American war anniversaries especially important to older readers -- Pearl Harbor Day December 7, Veterans Day November 11 and D-Day June 6.

Recently, a dozen readers applauded Robert Erlandson's November 11 article with photos by Michael Lutzky about World War I veterans on the 75th anniversary of Armistice Day, now Veterans Day. Still others, such as Sid Bernstein, loved his interview December 7, with photos by Amy Davis, with three Pearl Harbor veterans.

''Beautiful'' said Mr. Bernstein, a World War II Navy officer in the South Pacific, of the three veterans who warned America to stay alert. ''Beautiful.''

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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