Media conspiracy, biased coverage and a shrinking newsroom

The front page of today’s Charlotte Observer featured a centerpiece that is getting a lot of backlash in the community. The story and photos are about an upcoming trial, in which police officer Wes Kerrick is being brought up on voluntary manslaughter charges for the shooting death of Jonathan Ferrell, an accident victim who was seeking assistance from Kerrick. The post that follows are some of my thoughts related to today’s front page. Let me state that I don’t work for The Observer, I wasn’t in the newsroom last night, and I absolutely think they made a mistake.

The issue with today’s centerpiece is that The O chose a photo of Ferrell showing off a gold watch to the camera, and Wes Kerrick is portrayed as a family man holding a young child.

The criticism is that The O chose to portray the two men in different lights. It certainly seems as if The Observer is picking sides. That’s the last thing a reputable newspaper should want.



I cringed when I saw The Observer’s front page. As someone who has been designing front pages for more than a decade, I picked up immediately on what the readers are feeling. The photo package is off balance. It feels biased. It paints the suspect as a victim and the victim as some dude with a watch. Readers are outraged. One even accused The O of tainting the jury pool.

As much as I agree with the sentiment of the upset readers, I couldn’t help but feel bad for The Observer’s front page designer. I reached out to Kim, my partner in crime in all things journalism, to see if she had seen the front page and the criticism yet (I was sure she had, and I was right).

“I think I would have picked up the differences in the photo … do you think it would it have occurred to you?” she asked me.

“Yeah, immediately it would have. It’s a huge difference. Sad they didn’t see it. My guess is it wasn’t intentional,” I replied to her (pardon our text speak, by the way.)

After I wrote that to her, I couldn’t help but think about how many times I’ve been in the position of designing a photo package with constraints that the public would never even think about.

So I added to Kim: “People are going to call it a conspiracy, etc., when it was probably so much less. A lack of [photo] choices or they needed two verticals or the other ones [photos] were low res … Nothing so sinister as what people are assuming.

“And it doesn’t help they laid off 1/4 of their design staff recently,” I added, thinking about what it’s like to juggle multiple roles in a newsroom, do more with less, not have the time or the manpower to have someone doing a final once-over before deadline.

Kim knows the power behind what happened, she knows the phone calls their editor-in-chief will be getting tomorrow. “It’s such a sensitive topic … and the trial starting tomorrow. The nation is watching,” she said.

“I saw a photo of Ferrell with his fiancée recently. That one would have worked. It’s horizontal though (if I remember right),” I said to Kim.

“It’s people not seeing the forest for the trees,” I told her. “They [editorial staff] are overworked and trying to make deadline. Tweak this and that and change out this photo and crop that photo … and then suddenly you’re sending a message you never intended.”

And with that, we decided I should take this to the blog. I’m not defending what The Observer did. They made a mistake and that’s on them. But I would bet all my money (granted, it’s not much, I’m an unemployed journalist, come on) that the page designer had no desire to send the message that he/she sent.

The media is not the conspiracy everyone thinks it is — sadly, it’s a bunch of overworked, underpaid, undertrained people working to try to tell a story. Don’t cut them any slack — keep the criticism coming; it’s how they get better. But a little understanding goes a long way.

That said, it’s time to step up, Charlotte Observer. Kim said it best: the nation is watching.