A week after The Star ran its badly flawed red-light-camera story, aspects of the debacle are still coming to light.
Steve Glorioso, a public relations consultant for American Traffic Solutions (ATS), a private company that helps runs the red-light program for the city, contends that reporter Christine Vendel and her editors rushed the story into print prematurely last Tuesday because they badly wanted to scoop the other local news outlets.
The Star should have sat on the story, Glorioso says, until all the facts were assembled and until his client had a chance to respond fully to police department-generated data that indicated the camera program has not been the boon to public safety that it was supposed to be.
Vendel, who has covered KCPD for more than 15 years, reported and wrote two stories based on a police department report about the red-light program.
She got the report a few days before it was to be released Tuesday at a Board of Police Commissioners meeting.
By Monday, Vendel was doing her final work on the story, and the editors were planning to make it the Tuesday, A1 “centerpiece” story. If it all came together as planned, Vendel would have a nice A1 byline, and The Star would have its scoop.
Being the main story of the day, the centerpiece usually takes a lot of planning because it usually involves photos and graphics and requires a big chunk of space. In addition, a lot of people are typically involved in the production of a centerpiece, and once the editors have committed to a centerpiece for the next day’s paper, every effort is exerted to make it happen.
It was clear from Vendel’s second-day story that the facts were in flux all day Monday and into the evening. In Wednesday’s story, she said, “Police officials fixed many of the math errors Monday night.”
That is very disturbing to me as a former story editor at The Star. When the facts are changing the night before a story is to run — and when the story doesn’t have to run the next day — it’s best to hold off until all elements are pinned down to the best extent they can be.
Also disturbing is the fact that, in developing its study, the police department didn’t bother to consult ATS, the people who set up the program and help run it. That should have raised flags with Vendel and her editors.
At any rate, the story hit the streets Tuesday morning and, indeed, made a big splash. The gist of it, which ran under the headline “Red-light cameras don’t add to safety,” was that the total number of wrecks at the 17 intersections where cameras were installed two years ago had actually increased since the cameras went up.
Unfortunately, the story contained at least one major error (picked up from the study) and had a major omission.
Neither the study nor the story contained this pivotal, all-important fact: Wrecks caused by people who ran red lights at the 17 intersections dropped from 52 wrecks before the cameras’ arrival to 24 wrecks in the second year after their arrival.
Consider this: Getting people to stop running red lights — not reducing fender benders — was the main reason for erecting the cameras in 2009. Anything else is secondary.
Then, there was this error: The initial version of the police study said that officers had written about 200,000 camera-related tickets since January 2009.
“At $100 a ticket,” The Star’s Tuesday story said, “these fines could bring in $20 million.”
But an ATS official told the Board of Police Commissioners on Tuesday that police had issued about 150,000 tickets, which, at an average fine of $100, would have generated about $15 million.
The cops, then, didn’t even know how many tickets they had issued.
In Wednesday’s follow-up story, which ran on Page A4, Vendel cleaned up the error about the number of tickets and added the statistic about the sharp reduction in wrecks resulting from red-light running.
Nevertheless, I think Glorioso is absolutely right: With some key facts up in the air as late as Monday night and the police department making last-minute changes, The Star should have pulled back, forgone its scoop and waited to publish until its report was rock solid.
I hate to hammer Vendel because she is an outstanding reporter who has written many significant and important stories, but there was another huge problem with this story: She and her editors failed to put the story in any context. When I was reading the story on Tuesday morning, my first reaction was: Why in the world would the police be putting out a report that is harshly critical of a program that they enforce and that has appeared to have reduced red-light running? It has been beneficial from a public safety standpoint, right?
The answer came to me as I thought about it and read Wednesday’s story carefully. In almost throwaway fashion, Vendel said in a subsidiary clause that ATS “has an annual $1.6 million contract with the city to run the camera program.”
Bingo. There was the answer: ATS’ contract is with the city, not the police department.
The city and the police department have been at odds for years, essentially because the city would like more control over the police department, but the department is overseen by the Board of Police Commissioners, all but one of whose members — the mayor — are appointed by the governor. State control of the department dates back to the post-Pendergast era.
It seems clear to me that the police department was seeking to undermine a City-Hall-initiated program that it considers bothersome.
Buttressing my assertion that the police consider the program a bother, a former City Hall operative sent me an e-mail last Friday saying, “You are right on the red lights. The police have always resented that they have to sort through the pictures and video for ATS,” while the proceeds benefit the city.
Of course, a majority of readers would not get the significance of the situation simply from Vendel’s reference to the ATS contract being “with the city.” The story cried out for explanation and motive. But Vendel and her editors, who must have been sound asleep, did not deliver.
To the average reader, it had to appear that the police department — for some unknown, unspoken reason — had decided to try to take down the red-light-camera program.
I said in Thursday’s post that we should summon Sherlock Holmes to try to figure out the police department’s motive…Today, I’m changing the call: We don’t need Sherlock; we need the JPD, the Journalism Police Department.
Post script: I want to add that while it’s great to be able to sit back and critique a story several days after it has run, it is a totally different situation when you’re in the newsroom, developing a story and working frantically to get it on the front page the next day. The adrenaline is flowing, and you and your editors badly want to “go with it.” It’s very hard to pull the plug; I realize that. I probably would have done exactly what Vendel did…But, hey, somebody’s gotta call it as he (or she) sees it, and, by the power vested in me by the Bloggers Association of America (which I just created and named myself president of), I’m that guy.