In Vermont, an unlikely ombudsman spurs review of domestic violence coverage

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Over the course of two days, a spokesman for the Vermont State Police spearheaded a public critique of a local paper for what he termed “a massive failure of journalism.” The Barre Times Argus ultimately pledged to improve its standards for domestic violence coverage—though the paper’s editor raised concerns about the spokesman’s voluble criticism and the potential precedent it sets for the paper’s relationship with a prominent state agency.

Courtney Gaboriault, 29, was killed by her ex-boyfriend Luke Lacroix, 30, around 7:40am on Wednesday, July 4, in Barre City, before he turned his handgun on himself, police say. Gaboriault served as an employee of the Vermont Department of Public Safety for nearly five years.

The Times Argus, a daily paper based in Barre, has a staff of 10 and a daily circulation of 4,500. Last week, the paper published two stories by staff writer David Delcore about Gaboriault’s death. (CJR called Delcore to discuss the story. He declined to comment). The second, a deeper dive whose headline highlighted the issue of domestic violence, refers to Lacroix as a “popular lacrosse coach” at Spaulding High School, and describes him as “well-known and generally well-liked.” The piece also notes that LaCroix’s adoptive parents “were crushed by the news.” Gaboriault is first mentioned by name in the sixth paragraph.

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Courtney Gaboriault. Photo courtesy of Vermont State Police

Vermont State Police Public Information Officer Adam Silverman caused a stir on social media when he unleashed a 29-tweet thread scrutinizing the paper’s coverage. Silverman, who was hired by state police in March after serving 18 years as a reporter and an editor for the Burlington Free Press, accused the paper of “glorifying a domestic abuser and murderer”:

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Rob Mitchell, who serves as the editor-in-chief and online manager of the Times Argus and the general manager for its sister paper the Rutland Herald, took on the role of ombudsman and reviewed the paper’s coverage. In an article published Sunday, after Silverman’s first critiques, Mitchell apologized that the “article has caused our community so much additional pain.” He wrote that “it was not Delcore’s choice to paint a picture of [Lacroix] as a ‘good guy’—that was the story the community told.” He also said that Delcore had started working on a story on Gaboriault “almost immediately, but for various reasons it was not ready for publication in the short time frame.” (The Times Argus later published a story by staff writer Stephen Mills that quotes the victim’s parents, a colleague, and a professor who worked at Lyndon State College during Gaboriault’s undergraduate years.)

VTDigger, a state watchdog outlet, covered Silverman’s criticism and the Times Argus’s response. Steve Pappas, editor of the Times Argus, told VTDigger that Silverman’s response “was a cheap shot,” and that “the newspaper received no warning that the Department of Public Safety planned to publicly lambaste the paper.” Those comments sent Silverman back to Twitter, where he had recently discussed the Times Argus apology.

Mitchell, of the Times Argus, was quick to express to CJR that the story didn’t meet the paper’s editorial standards. He also says Silverman “had good points,” and that “even public officials are entitled to their opinions.” However, he worries that the incident sets a template for the state police spokesman to act as arbiter for the paper’s work.

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“Essentially, he was calling on the public to tear down a media organization,” argues Mitchell. “He also responded to the VTDigger article claiming that neither I or the editor took any lessons from this whole process, which is just not true. Any good faith effort we made became criticized beyond a strict journalistic criticism. I think that precedent is dangerous ’cause it falls in line with the fake news line, where you don’t like what the media response is so you call it ‘fake news.’”

Silverman told CJR via email that he chose to speak out on behalf of the VSP because “it was important to respond with as dispassionate an analysis as possible to help explain why the story was objectively flawed.” Asked whether media critic is an appropriate role for a PIO to play, he argued that it isn’t unusual for the government to comment on media coverage. “As a former [Burlington Free Press] colleague said to me a few days ago, rarely did a week go by when he did not receive some sort of comment or criticism from a state official,” Silverman wrote.

In the future, all Times Argus stories involving a loss of life will pass through additional editors, says Mitchell. The paper will also develop a checklist for reporting on domestic violence incidents. Finally, Mitchell says the paper is reconsidering its standards for stories in other beats to see if there is room for improvement.

“I know there is this broad narrative of papers being under siege in this country and there’s low staffing, but we can’t let that stop us from striving to be better at what we do every day,” Mitchell says. “I just spent many hours this week on improving our internal processes and research. I can’t do it every week, but I can do it a little bit every week, and it’s about what we make the time for.”

Asked whether he would continue to offer media criticism in his capacity as a PIO, Silverman replied, “I take no pleasure in criticizing people in an industry I believe in, support wholeheartedly and for which I continue to be a champion. But if there ever is a need to speak out again, I certainly would consider doing so.”

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Justin Ray is the digital media editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Follow him on Twitter @jray05.