Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Media right, media wrong: Trayvon Martin, HOAs and the Rush to Judgment

In the news media’s rush to cover a story like the tragic shooting death in late-February of Trayvon Martin at The Retreat at Twin Lakes homeowners association in Sanford, FL, reporters and editors sometimes get it right and they sometimes get it wrong.

It’s understandable, I know, but irksome nonetheless. It is the unusual, the “out of the ordinary” that is by its very definition what makes news. The old saw that “Man bites dog” makes a headline, when the more usual occurrence of “Dog bites man” does not, holds true precisely because the unusual catches our attention. Across the country, day-in and day-out for years on end, countless thousands of volunteers have patrolled homeowner associations peaceably, unarmed and with no shooting incidents leading to a tragedy that rocks the community and makes the nightly news. Of course, these never get reported because the commonplace is not deemed “newsworthy.”

In the rush to cover a story like the Trayvon Martin shooting, newspapers in particular seem to have a difficult time in separating out what is really going on from what is a distraction, as reporters and editors attempt to cover the daily news on tight deadlines and with painfully reduced newsroom staff, owing to the chronic layoffs in the newspaper industry in recent years. The result? Things can often get jumbled and comments misconstrued as the papers go to press. For example, a recent Orlando Sentinel story, in which my comments about potential liability for HOAs like the Retreat at Twin Lakes were jumbled with an apparent implication introduced by the reporter that the HOA’s management company might itself be liable should any civil lawsuit be filed by the Martin family.

In fact, I’ve seen no evidence to suggest that might be the case. Yet the combination of a reporter in search of a "fresh angle" on the news, with the juxtaposition of quotes and sources in the story in the writing and editing process, can quickly take a newspaper piece in such a direction, providing evidence of some of the less fortunate reporting that we’re seeing around this case. Another example is the rush to judgment in some news reports that somehow these kinds of tragedies are just waiting to happen in any HOA that has volunteer activities on their premises, a supposition aided and abetted by sources who are distinctly anti-association and are always willing to cast aspersions on HOAs, whatever the issue at hand.

Fortunately, the immediacy of radio reporting and its ability to get across verbatim what a news source does or does not say, without the filter of a print journalists’ hastily jotted notes and sometimes sketchy recollection, means you can go on the record clearly over the air.

For example, in speaking on the radio about the Trayvon Martin case, I’ve been able to more accurately get my points across, telling American Public Radio’s Marketplace Morning Report this week that if there were to be a civil suit in the Trayvon Martin case “chances are that the plaintiffs will add the association at some point to an action. That doesn't mean, however, that the association will not ultimately be dismissed from that action and/or not found liable.” And, likewise, telling NPR’s “All Things Considered" program that I have been told that The Retreat at Twin Lakes Association in Sanford “did reach out to the local sheriff's office to set up that neighborhood watch and, if that's the case, that's going to go a long way towards creating a safety net for that association.”

Radio has also allowed me to get across my firm conviction that volunteers and volunteerism is at the heart of healthy and properly run homeowner associations across the nation, telling NPR that while the degree to which the association was involved in setting up the neighborhood watch group could determine its potential liability, “this is not to say that associations should not use volunteers in the community. It does mean that communities who are considering using volunteers should discuss these issues ahead of time.”

It would truly be a shame if the increased public awareness of the risk involved in the use of volunteers in HOAs, an awareness rightfully heightened by the news media shining its light on the issues involved, would only serve to discourage the use of volunteers in our communities. As I told NPR reporter Greg Allen, the use of volunteers helps pull a community together which is “a great thing. An association shouldn't shy away from it. They should just take the proper steps to make sure that they've got the right volunteers performing the right activity, they've done due diligence and they have insurance to cover it.”

Those interested can find a transcript and audio clip of my Marketplace Morning Report interview with Senior Reporter Stacey Vanek Smith online at the Marketplace website, here. To listen to the audio clip, just click on the radio player start button and fast forward into the news report to 04:46, where the interview begins.

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