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Report to Readers

Report to Readers: What was behind that MV story?

I wasn’t surprised that our coverage of the arrests of six Merrimack Valley students caused some consternation on the part of the girls and their friends and families. What has surprised me, in the week since our story was published, was the number of readers who assumed a motive on the part of the Monitor – a variety of contradictory motives, in fact.

To back up, the Concord police recently arrested six students sitting in a car outside Merrimack Valley High School where a dance was going on. The students were charged with underage drinking. Monitor reporter Tricia L. Nadolny wrote a story about the incident and it appeared in the March 23 edition, at the bottom of the front page.

In the days since then, we have published four letters to the editor regarding the incident and our coverage of it. Two letters – including one from one of the students arrested – were critical of the Monitor. The other two said such criticism was misplaced and thanked us for the coverage. The newsroom has also received emails and phone calls about both the incident and our story.

Both supporters and critics of our decision to write the story and place it on the front page assumed there was something other than run-of-the-mill news judgment afoot.

Some accused Nadolny and her editors of taking pleasure in the students’ pain – of going out of our way to embarrass them. One man wrote that all teenagers experiment with alcohol and that such a story surely didn’t belong on the front page.

Other readers assumed we were trying to make a point about the dangers of underage drinking – perhaps as a warning to other teens – and they applauded that effort.

Then on Friday, the Local & State page carried an Insiders column in which writers Ben Conant and Keith Testa let readers know about a YMCA fundraiser under the headline “Brews and bites at boozy benefit.”

And in a letter that will appear on Monday’s Opinion page, a reader wondered if the Monitor’s overall coverage was sending a mixed message. She seemed to assume that Nadolny’s story (and perhaps our publication of some of the letters) was aimed at warning readers about the dangers of alcohol – and that The Insiders were glorifying it.

All of these assumptions are quite different from the way decision-making about the news and Opinion pages actually unfolds at the Monitor.

Nadolny wrote her story not to shame the students or to make a point about alcohol but, more simply, to tell readers what was going on in their community. It’s not every day that the local police arrest six teenagers at a local high school – that’s news.

Did it belong on the front page? That decision was mine. The main thing I’m looking for each evening as we plan then next morning’s front page is a good mix of important and interesting news, with local stories getting top billing whenever possible. On March 23, along with stories about a proposed cell phone tower in Hopkinton, a racy store in Pembroke, Concord High kids tubing at Pats Peak and a breakthrough in Israeli diplomacy, the MV arrests made the cut. The headline was modest and the story appeared at the bottom of the page. To me, that seemed like appropriate play.

Similarly, the publication of the letters didn’t involve any motive on our part other than letting readers know what their neighbors thought about an event that clearly had people talking. And the only mission of The Insiders column is to let readers know about entertainment options in and around Concord – as broad a variety as possible.

The local news is sometimes good and sometimes unpleasant – and readers are always eager to tell us what they think about it. Our mission is to share all of that, as evenhandedly as possible.

As always, let us know what you think.

(Felice Belman can be reached at 369-3370 or fbelman@cmonitor.com)

It was the right thing to do and the Monitor reported this, I believe, knowing that it would upset their core readership. I am a critic of your coverage but you got this one right. What is more telling to me is that the parents of these students either had not idea what was going on or did not care. I think that is endemic in families today, parents seem to be out of touch with what their kids are doing. I think that a little better parenting could prevent much of this kind of behavior. But, good coverage for the Monitor, taking on the tough and unpopular stories is always difficult.

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