Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Who exactly is a paramedic who drives an ambulance?

Some of our readers have taken great offense to the headline to a story in our Sunday print edition, which read: ‘Ambulance driver badly hurt in crash: 3 others injured in head-on crash’
The story, accompanied by a photo of the badly crumpled front of the  ambulance, went on to describe how the ambulance, driven by paramedic William Spadafora, had collided Saturday morning with a pickup truck on state Route 32 in the town of Ulster.

Many of you at this point are likely puzzled. But every member of the emergency services community knows exactly what’s at issue.
In the eyes of paramedics, we committed the sin of referencing one of their own as an ‘ambulance driver,’ instead of as either a ‘paramedic’ or an ‘emergency medical technician.’
We know this because we have heard from a steady stream of paramedics. The response has run the gamut from gentle education to full-scale venting, including the crying of tears.
No offense was intended nor was it implied by a common reading of our headline.
We understand the distinction between ‘ambulance driver’ and ‘paramedic,’ which is why you normally will not see a news story referencing ‘ambulance drivers’ responding to the scene of an emergency. It’s also why Mr. Spadafora was characterized in the story as a paramedic after it was made clear that he had been the driver of the ambulance.
But, journalistically, ‘ambulance driver’ performs much better in the headline in service of readers.
The paramedic injured in this accident was not "an ambulance driver" in the sense of vocation, but he was very definitely was in the sense of "the driver of an ambulance." (You wouldn't say "Paramedic driver," would you?)
That is to say, the description is both accurate and more informative than "Paramedic badly hurt in crash." The use puts the victim behind the wheel of an ambulance and suggests the accident occurred while in performance of a duty. The story, of course, goes on to identify his status as paramedic, presumably eliminating any potential confusion.
Think of it this way. Most traffic accident headlines will read something like this:
-- 'Motorist badly hurt....'
Indicating the driver of a car, usually a personal vehicle.
-- 'Cyclist badly hurt...'
Indicating the driver of a motorcycle.
-- 'Truck driver badly hurt....'
Indicating the driver of a truck.
In none of those instances is the characterization of the driver intended to signify vocation or status, but, rather, the headline indicates the action of the person at the time of the accident. In other words, this style of headline, in each of its variations, puts the injured behind the wheel of the particular vehicle involved.
The motorist or the cyclist or the truck driver could be a brain surgeon or a lifeguard or an editor or a paramedic; that's not the point of the characterization, which is simply to put the injured person behind the wheel of a vehicle at the time of an accident.
In most cases, we would not write "Brain surgeon badly hurt..." or "Lifeguard badly hurt..." or "Editor badly hurt..." when writing about a traffic accident. (We would do so only if the person injured was particularly well-known such as, say, a mayor or governor or famous musician.)
Again, the headline is not about their occupation or status, it's about what they were doing at the time of the accident.
In print, for the purposes of clarity in a limited space, the headline "Ambulance driver badly hurt...' worked perfectly in concert with the photo that we published, immediately telling the potential reader that the person injured was behind the most severely crushed portion of the ambulance.
The story, of course, properly clarified that Mr. Spadafora is a paramedic.
A couple of folks even sent along to us an essay attributed to Rod Brouhard, a paramedic and published author on emergency medical care.
That article delves into the history of the term as used in the days when training was scarce for mobile emergency providers. Interestingly, while the persons who send us the article intended to chastise us, the article itself actually defends the occasional, specific use of the term “ambulance driver.”
According to the article forwarded to us, Brouhard wrote:
Even though the training of paramedics and EMTs got more intensive and began to provide more in-depth care, we never could quite shake the moniker of ambulance driver. I am regularly asked - often by folks who really should know better - if I'm still "driving the ambulance."
Here's the thing: Within the description of my job I am certainly an ambulance driver. It's part of the gig. When you call 911 for a medical emergency, someone must drive the ambulance to your location. Indeed, California requires ambulance drivers to have an ambulance driver's certificate. Not all states require ambulance driver licenses, but I suppose since I'm a California paramedic, I must also admit that I'm a certified ambulance driver.
The assumption by many paramedics and EMTs is that being called an ambulance driver demeans the skill and training that we have. Perhaps my paramedic skills take a back seat when I'm referred to as a driver, but I can't deny that aspect of my job. On the other hand, it is helpful to us as a group if folks understand that ambulances need more than drivers in the modern EMS.
I agree with this perspective, which is why “ambulance driver,” as used in the headline, was a legitimate, descriptive use applicable to the action of the story, while it was also appropriate that Mr. Spadafora was characterized more generally as a “paramedic” in the story itself.
He is a paramedic who, at the time of the accident, was an ambulance driver. And we are all praying for his speedy recovery.
Read more »

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Freeman enforcement of comment policy to be tightened

There was a time when the Internet was the Wild West.
It was a new frontier and no one was exactly sure what it was or where it was going.
But there was a lot of optimism about the Brave New World and what it meant for the democratizing of commentary. Power to the People, and all that.
We were down with that and we embraced the new ethos with enthusiasm and the commitment we thought necessary to see it through.
We’re here to tell you that this noble experiment, with regard to our comment sections, surely has proven itself.
It has proven itself a failure.
The idea that readers would police themselves and discipline those who broke an unspoken etiquette was hopelessly naïve.
Our comment section descended into the sewer.
We stayed the course as long as we could stomach it. But we can’t stomach it any longer.
Effective immediately, any comment that, in our judgment, is intended to insult, belittle or deride a commentator will not be approved.
Our goal is to create a constructive community and a place where readers want to go to read and be heard, without fear of reprisal. In short, a marketplace of ideas rather than a battlefield of ad hominem attack.
We will do the best we can to referee fairly.
We are committed to building an intelligent and respectful community of comment.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Reporting the suspension and arrest of a teacher on felony drug charges

Breaking news isn’t artwork.
If you’re lucky, it looks like a craft, at best.
Sometimes it’s just messy.
Time is of the essence on breaking news because your community is hungry for information. At the same time, the sources of information can be reluctant or unable to tell you what the community wants to know.
That’s pretty much sums up the reporting this week of the news of the arrest of Kingston High School teacher Matthew DiDonna.
Our newsroom learned relatively late in the work cycle on Sunday that the Kingston school district had posted a notice about a high school teacher having been arrested by the state police. The posting stated the district “has been informed by law enforcement personnel that a Kingston High School teacher has been arrested on multiple drug charges. This individual will be placed on leave.”
The district did not identify the teacher and the website quoted Superintendent Paul Padalino as saying “due to legal issues surrounding employee confidentiality, I am unable to comment on any specific cases.”
The newsroom also had in its possession an arrest item from state police and published it in the Law & Disorder column as follows:


Drugs: Matthew T. DiDonna, 42, of 12 Wayside Drive, Hurley was arrested Sunday at 3:55 a.m. by state police at Ulster and charged with two felonies: possession and sale of a controlled substance as well as violation possession of marijuana. Police said the arrest followed an investigation determining that DiDonna sold drugs at his residence the prior evening. Executing a search warrant, police said they found DiDonna to be in possession of a quantity of psilocybin mushrooms and marijuana. He was arraigned in Hurley Town Court and later released from Ulster County Jail on $20,000 bail.

We knew a Matthew DiDonna was listed on the KHS staff directory.
Circumstantially, it seemed to be a match.
But circumstantial is not good enough. We needed to know that DiDonna was the teacher referenced by the school district posting. It is hardly unheard of, after all, for the same people in a community to have the same name, especially men, who not infrequently are named after their fathers. 
So we posted separate stories -- the one about an unidentified KHS teacher being suspended for drug charges, the other the police blotter item (see above).
Some readers thought they were being helpful by trying to post with our stories the observation that a Matthew DiDonna was listed on the KHS directory as a teacher. Some appeared to have more than a circumstantial knowledge that the two were one in the same.
Still, we rejected those postings as attempting to make an identification we had not confirmed. Had it been a case of mistaken identity, such a posting could have been libelous.
To say readers were hammering us with online postings early the next morning would be putting it mildly.
More than one commenter suggested we were either stupid or lazy for not having connected the two via the staff directory listing and reported it as fact.
Several commenters suggested we were trying to cover up the identity of the teacher.
Some suggested we had withheld the identity of someone charged with a crime when others would be routinely identified.
In fact, we simply had been unable to make an authoritative connection between the Law & Disorder item and the news story about the teacher being put on leave.
Again, most of these comments were disallowed, not because they criticized us – we can and do take that – but because the content of those comments would have made an identification that we had yet to confirm.
Why was it so hard to confirm?
The district was reluctant to identify DiDonna for reasons only it can explain, but my guess is that Superintendent Padalino wanted an opportunity to consult with the district’s legal counsel on Monday about what he could and could not say.
The state police likely were going through the same process on a Sunday evening; an officer on duty made it clear he had been instructed not to give out any more information than had been made available.
Early Monday morning, we were told the district attorney was away and, thus, unavailable.
My take? Everyone was trying to do their job responsibly and it was just taking more time than readers wanted on a very hot story.
The chorus of criticism of our failing to fully identify the teacher put on leave continued to grow through the morning.
At about 10:20a, a spokeswoman for the district contacted us and said the district now could confirm that it was DiDonna who was to be placed on administrative leave and it was connected to the arrest report we had published.
At about the same time, reporter Paula Mitchell obtained from the Ulster County Sheriff’s Office a mugshot of DiDonna.
In this way we were finally able to identify the teacher who was placed on leave by the district for alleged drug offenses as the Matthew DiDonna who had been identified as having been arrested in Hurley on drug charges.
Within minutes, we had updated the story to bring together what had been two separate news items.
At about the same time, a number of readers began commenting about a death that they said was related to the DiDonna case.
That started us off on a new round of reporter inquiries to try to confirm there had been a death. But we approved the comments before confirming a death had occurred in relation to the case because the comments themselves made no accusation of criminality and, therefore, did not impugn the reputation of Mr. DiDonna.
Some readers subsequently criticized our reporting that state police were investigating the possible connection between the DiDonna case and the death of Mark Conlin, of 78 DeWitt Mills Road, Hurley. Since state police had not confirmed a connection between any drug sale DiDonna may have made and Conlin’s death, they said, it was irresponsible to report the interest of investigators.
I cannot agree. The medical emergency and subsequent death of Conlin triggered the chain of events that led to the arrest of DiDonna. That death was intimately connected to the news of the day and begged the question what authorities were doing about it. The answer to that question was: awaiting toxicology results. And that’s what we reported.
I should add that the way this story unfolded was not unusual. Typically, there are plenty of “civilians,” neither officials nor journalists, who happen to be physically or personally close to a breaking story such as a death. That proximity makes them better versed in the particulars of the story than reporters immediately can easily piece together.

It’s slow going for reporters at the beginning because:
-- official sources are treading carefully while awaiting instructions from higher ups;
-- the people who would normally be expected to release information don’t actually have a handle on the incident yet;
-- reporters have yet to identify and track down unofficial sources that might have first-hand knowledge of the event in question; and
-- even when unofficial sources are found by a reporter, they frequently are unwilling to speak on the record about what they know because it is an unfamiliar thing to be speaking to a reporter about a deadly serious matter. It makes them nervous.

Like I said, it isn’t artwork. It’s a matter of piecing things together responsibly.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Final quote approval by newsmakers and Freeman policy

It's come to light recently that some fairly heavyweight journalistic organizations have routinely granted final quote approval to story subjects. This was somewhat surprising to me, but presented an opportunity to clarify our principles on this issue. Following is an excerpt from a memo sent to Freeman reporters and editors, who were directed to consider this policy:

Reporters, at their discretion, may read quotes back to story subjects when, in the reporter’s judgment, clarity and accuracy are at issue. That’s good journalism. However, under no circumstances shall a Freeman reporter or editor grant or imply that a story subject has control or final approval over any element of story content, including direct quotes from the subject.

Once said to a reporter, the words of a story subject belong to the reporter and the Freeman for dissemination to the public as, in our institutional judgment, may be required. A story subject may expand or explain a prior utterance, but cannot presume to recall what he or she has said.

If a story subject demands quote approval prior to an interview, it is policy to decline the interview. The resulting story should indicate the subject declined to speak to the Freeman without final approval over the use of quotes, which the Freeman does not grant. If the failure of a potential story subject to agree to our policy on quotes means we must forgo a story altogether, so be it.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Poughkeepsie Journal apologizes for use of Freeman material without attribution

Sometime after 8 a.m. Friday, 06-10-12, the Poughkeepsie Journal published an online story about a tuition increase at Dutchess Community College that looked suspiciously like the Freeman's report on the same issue. A close look at the two stories revealed similarities so obvious that it was clear to me our story had been rewritten by the Journal.

I immediately blew the whistle by Twitter:

Hey @PokJournal if you're going to rip off our report, how about giving credit? That DCC tuition story is thin rewrite http://ow.ly/brOFp

and sent a detailed email at around 9 a.m. to Journal Executive Editor Stuart Shinske asking him to investigate.

As the day dragged on and there was no response, we followed with a second tweet to our followers at 8:54p:

It's been about 9 hrs since we called @PokJournal on ripping off our DCC tuition story without attribution. No response ow.ly/bsHqM

and another 7:37a Saturday, again including the Journal's main Twitter address:

So far, so good. No @PokJournal ripoffs of our stories this morning. Also, still no response re our complaint Friday. ow.ly/bt4Ch

Later on Saturday morning, Stu called me and said he had not been made aware of the situation until late Friday. The tweets were not brought to his attention, he said, and he never received my email.
He assured me he took the matter seriously and would get back to me after he had had a chance to fully investigate.

He called me back late Saturday afternoon, with his findings and what I can only characterize as a profuse apology. He informed me the Journal would publish an apology on Sunday, which the Journal has done.

Stuff happens. How Stu responded once we finally connected was exemplary. Many thanks to him.

Following are the marked-up stories published by the Journal and the Freeman about the tuition increase.

THE JOURNAL STORY published on line on Friday: 
Tuition at Dutchess Community College would rise for the first time in three years under the college’s proposed 2012-13 budget.
Under the budget, tuition would rise to $3,100 per year for full-time students, a 6.9 percent hike from the current $2,900. Part-time tuition would rise to $129 per credit hour from $121. College officials say the tuition would continue to be the lowest in the state.
DCC’s $61.8 million spending plan is an increase of 2.6 percent from current $60.3 million budget.
The county’s contribution to the college would remain flat in the budget. The county Legislature is set to vote on the budget on Monday and a public hearing has been set for 7 p.m. on July 16.
Ulster County Community College has adopted a budget that calls for increasing tuition for full-time students to $4,130 per year from the current $3,990. Part-timers would pay $149 per credit hour, up from $142.

THE FREEMAN STORY published on line on Friday:

Freeman staff
pdoxsey@freemanonline.com; twitter.com/pattiatfreeman
POUGHKEEPSIE, N.Y. — Tuition at Dutchess Community College would rise for the first time in three years and  the county’s contribution to the college remain flat for the fourth consecutive year under the college’s proposed 2012-13 budget.

Members of the DCC board have adopted a $61.8 million spending plan, up 2.6 percent, or $1.55 million, from college’s $60.3 million 2011-12 budget.

Members of the county Legislature’s Budget and Finance Committee on Thursday adopted a resolution that will go before the full Legislature on Monday to set a public hearing on the budget for 7 p.m. July 16.

Tuition under the plan would rise to $3,100 per year for full-time students, a 6.9 percent hike from the current $2,900.

Part-time tuition would rise to $129 per credit hour from $121.

The last time DCC tuition increased was 2008-09, when the full-time cost of attending the two-year school rose 0.9 percent.

According to budget documents provided to the Legislature by the college, even with the tuition increase, DCC  would have the lowest tuition of any college or university in the state that charges tuition.

Legislature Majority Leader Dale Borchet said he didn’t believe the “small increase” would pose a hindrance to those looking to attend DCC.

“We’re still the lowest tuition in the state,” said Borchet, R-LaGrange. “The community college does a fantastic job.”

Ulster County Community College has adopted a budget that calls for increasing tuition for full-time students to $4,130 per year from the current $3,990. Part-timers would pay $149 per credit hour, up from $142.

On Wednesday, some Ulster County lawmakers discussed increasing the county’s contribution to UCCC in order to stave off the proposed hike.

The DCC budget calls for the county to contribute $10.8 million, an amount that has remained steady since 2008.

Ulster County Community College’s  $28.2 million 2012-13 budget calls for the county to contribute $6.8 million toward the college’s operation.

Friday, April 13, 2012

Why are you guys sitting around with your feet on the desk instead of reporting what we need to know?

A reader this morning impatiently (if the timing and use of ALL CAPS are any indication) asked:


Here's how I responded:

Because we haven't gotten to it yet. It correctly is characterized as a "bit" of news reported by our good friends at the Times Herald Record. The item, in its entirety as it appeared in the THR, with link back to the THR, follows:

Despite all the teaching positions on the chopping block, Padalino wants to spend $125,000 to restore an assistant superintendent for business position vacant since June 2010.

"As things are changing in education, the responsibilities in that office grow," he said.



William Kemble, the reporter who covered the Wednesday evening meeting, filed an immediate Web story that evening, then a longer version to supplant the initial story. On Thursday, he covered press conferences at 1 p.m. in Kingston (Hein announcement on use of fracking brine) and 3:30 p.m. in New Paltz (Don Kerr statement on dropping of charges against him)  and filed stories on each. He also wrote a story on the Olive Town Board delaying action on a hydrofracking local law.

There are only so many hours in a day and it was our judgment that, in addition to those four stories, Mr. Kemble would write his immediate followup to the Kingston Board of Education meeting on the decision of trustees to seek restitution from convicted former Det. Lt. Timothy Matthews for double dipping on the district payroll.


Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Dancing With the Stars" v. Autism news

A reader today took issue with our posting as a "Latest Update" this morning a short story on the results of last night's "Dancing With the Stars" television show competition:

I find it odd that this newspaper includes this article but writes nothing
on the top headlines about autism.

This was my response:

To which "top headlines about autism" do you refer?

On any given day, there are numerous stories about scientific studies or political controversies about disease research.

The current AP wire includes autism stories about:

  • Autism insurance in Arkansas, 
  • the use of iPads by autism students, and
  • a lawsuit against a drug company regarding an anti-psychotic drug sometimes used to treat autism patients.
A search of The New York Times produces the following recent stories on autism:
  • The Rising Number of Autism Diagnoses 
  • The Autism Wars
  • Scientists Link Rare Gene Mutations to Heightened Risk of Autism
And our own online Health section currently features recent stories on:
  • Advocates for insurance coverage of autism plead their case; and 
  • Autism may be linked to obese mothers
All news, but not necessarily a "top headline," the definition of which, I concede, is open to interpretation.

The overnight development regarding a very popular TV show will interest a lot of people and also be of no interest to many. But it's like a sports score in that regard. News at the moment and not at all in a few hours. We try to cater to many tastes and our metrics demonstrate there is reader interest in Dancing with the Stars.

Thank you for posting your comment and giving me a chance to respond.