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Kristen Daum, Published October 16 2009

Media targeted for Chapman stories

Local media are taking heat from some who blame them for North Dakota State University President Joseph Chapman’s resignation.

For the past week, Chapman has been the primary topic of discussion on local talk radio shows and the subject of several front-page stories in The Forum due to controversies over how much the NDSU president’s house cost to build and other uses of donated funds to the university.

Some members of the public criticized reporters, editors, news directors and talk-show hosts for bombarding Chapman with negative coverage during the past week, which, they say, drove him to resign.

KFGO morning radio talk-show host Joel Heitkamp said he’s received dozens of e-mails and phone calls from listeners responding to the station’s coverage of Chapman.

Heitkamp said some have criticized him for continuing to discuss Chapman, but he said it was necessary to report the facts as a service to listeners.

“Obviously, I’m going to have a big target on my back. I’m the one who said it, but it isn’t as if I got this information all on my own,” Heitkamp said. “This wasn’t something we created; this was something that the facts created.”

Scott Hennen, conservative radio host and owner of AM-1100, is one critic of local media – saying they failed to provide accurate context of Chapman’s NDSU career, which included substantial progress for the university.

“You can zero in on any one particular target and fire away, but if you don’t provide the consumer with a larger picture, you’re being irresponsible,” Hennen said. “That isn’t what my sense of journalism is supposed to be.”

Part of a journalist’s job is the so-called “watchdog” role of holding government officials accountable – and that doesn’t always result in positive coverage, said Jane Kirtley, director of the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota.

“You’d like to sort of make people happy all the time, but there is disturbing news out there that has to be reported,” Kirtley said. “The bottom line is: As long as you are accurate, as long as you do your best to put it into context – then it’s up to the public to decide how to react to that.”

Forum Editor Matthew Von Pinnon said he’s received only a few responses criticizing the newspaper’s coverage.

“Our role fundamentally is to provide people with information, and then they make the choices,” Von Pinnon said. “I think we’ve been the one doing the objective reporting, and yet there’s been a lot of pundits out there who are feeding off that information and doing a lot of commentary.”

Clara Osowski, former NDSU student body vice president, said she believes some media coverage has been more like tabloid fodder than actual news.

“It’s sad that a media outlet can determine some sort of manifestation of a person’s personality,” said Osowski, a 2008 graduate. “There’s a truth to this story, and some of the controversy doesn’t lead us to that – and I’d hate for the media to be an outlet for things that aren’t the truth.”

While the popular university president has said media coverage was not part of his decision to resign, NDSU’s university relations vice president Keith Bjerke said he saw the multitude of attention take a toll on the president.

“It seemed like it was a feeding frenzy,” Bjerke said. “It went on and on and on. And pretty soon, it was just all at once.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Kristen Daum at (701) 241-5541