Last week, the Minnesota Daily ran a story that began thusly: "Every city needs its own maniacal, googily eyed token crazy lady. Minneapolis has 'Scary' Mari Newman, the electric haired, pierced-up artist whose house on 51st and Penn is a full-blown installation of garish folk art." The article goes on to refer to Newman as a "woman of questionable mental faculties."
Jon Skaalen of VSA arts of Minnesota, which advocates for disabled artists, wrote to Tim Franzen, The Daily's reader's rep, in order to find out why the paper was thoughtless enough to print the piece in question, which, after making fun of Newman, went on to review a play. Here's the full exchange, in case you're interested:
VSA: Is Mari Newman a "public figure," and therefore fair game for a reporter to write whatever she wants?
MN Daily: I can't really answer that question. It gets to the heart of libel, and I honestly don't know what legally constitutes a 'public figure' or not. I'll be going to law school to study media law next year, but right now, I really don't know.
VSA: Would it have hurt the story if she had not used Ms. Newman's last name?
MN Daily: No, it would not have harmed the story, but I assume Miller was using it because it adds detail. Journalists are always taught to add details, to show not tell. I assume that that's why she included it, but it was a mistake to do so.
VSA: Why did she not use the full name of the Prom Queen of West Seventh Street in St. Paul? Did she not know it, while she did know of Ms. Newman from reading City Pages (likely her unacknowledged source) in April? Might a good reporter's normal selection process have been consistent - use both real names or use both nicknames?
MN Daily: I assume Miller did not know the real name of the 'Prom Queen.' However, she knew Newman's name from growing up in the area, not from reading City Pages. I think because in her mind her writing was going to be a critique of labeling people crazy who are not conforming with society's norms, she didn't think hard enough about the consequences of using her real name. She should have thought harder about it and either made her point more clearly or not used her full name.
VSA: Would it have hurt the story if she had used "South Minneapolis" instead of the precise location for vandals to so easily check out?
MN Daily: No, it would not have hurt the story. I would imagine that she wanted people to know who she was talking about, and so people could relate. Being specific gets everybody on board and get's people to say "oh yeah, I've driven past that house." Again, this is not an excuse, just what was probably going on. Using details is usually desired, but I understand in this case how it would not.
VSA: How does Miss Miller make the leap from this first paragraph to deduce and imply that this real person is a "woman of questionable mental faculties"? Has the reporter met Ms. Newman and have proof her mental faculties are questionable rather than being playful or politically astute or wittily topical or any number of other phrases that she or her editor might have considered?
MN Daily: She meant her remarks to be sarcastic and critical of society, not taken literally. She grew up near Newman's house, but I don't believe she met her. I also agree that the editor should have been more careful about what got onto the pages. While Miller was writing, she was less able to step back and see how her writing was actually sounding. The editor should have been aware and considered all of these points more carefully.
VSA: Does the Daily make a regular practice of giving out the addresses of other people mentioned in stories - football players, faculty, policemen, reporters?
MN Daily: Sometimes, yes. When reporting on a house fire, for instance, we would report where the fire took place, and speak to the residents of that house. I can see why she wanted to include it in this case, but also why it might have been better left off. When describing a house, it helps the readers to know precisely where it is. Not for vandals, but for readers' ability to locate and understand what house she is referring to. I don't think it would be out of line to mention the house address in referring to it in another story. This case is different because she implied the woman who lvies there is "crazy." I understand the difference.
VSA: Do your reporters frequently dress up people mentioned in their stories in borrowed nicknames, particularly nicknames that are derogatory? Is this considered good journalism at the Daily?
MN Daily: If someone has a nickname that's pertinent to the story, yes the Daily would probably print it. This was an A&E piece, and the writers for that section are allowed to be more playful with their anecdotes and stories. However, this was not good writing because Miller was not clear in making her point. Miller also did not make up the nickname in the newsroom, she said it came from her childhood where some kids called her that. It would not be appropriate at any time for a journalist to invent a nickname just to include in the story, but the nickname came from the community.
VSA: How many of your news or opinion subjects in the past year have you referred to as women or men "of questionable mental faculties"? Is this considered good journalism at the Daily?
MN Daily: I don't know the answer to this, but clearly it is not good journalism to imply that someone has questionable mental faculties, unless it is a documented case and we have reason to publish it. This was not the case here.
VSA: Since Miss Miller has dubbed a real person as "Crazy Mari" and given out her street address, can we assume that it's okay with her and the Daily to let the chips fall where they may, and if that includes a few soused readers driving by her place with taunts and cans of spray paint, that's okay with you?
MN Daily: No, that is in fact, not OK with the Daily. However, the Daily did not encourage this action, nor can it be reasonably assumed that the Daily or Miller would approve of this. I understand you are upset with the article, but this is a bit off point and clearly not OK or the intention of the article.
VSA: Has Miss Miller actually driven by Mari's house and decided that Mari's art is "garish" and that her house is a "full-blown" art installation, or did she just read that somewhere and feel that it would fit her review?
MN Daily: Miller grew up near her house, and has seen it personally, yes. This was a mistake. I agree with you on that point. The writer should have better made her point that just because her house doesn't look like everyone else's that doesn't make her crazy. She did not adequately do this. I will speak with the editor in chief about what is going to be done about this and get back to you later. Keep in mind, however, that it is finals week at the University and we will not be putting out a new paper until after this week.