Denver Media Goes Ga-Ga Over Questionable Story

A significant number of folks in the mainstream Denver media have a far different idea of what constitutes a big story than I do. That fact is illustrated by the amount of coverage heaped upon the tale of Adrian Ulm (pictured), a middle schooler who was allegedly beaten by a fellow student because of his German background.

In a February 19 More Messages blog, I suggested that Channel 9 had erred by placing a report about Ulm in the top slot of the previous evening's 10 p.m. newscast for a couple of important reasons -- the beating incident took place way back on November 30, and the student responsible had already been tossed out of school. I failed to add that if Ulm's father chose to file a lawsuit in the case, he would be the first parent to take advantage of a two-year-old hate-crime amendment that covers school bullying -- a story element that Channel 9 underplayed in a big way. Then again, such a suit hadn't been filed, making the most interesting news hook little more than a hypothetical.

Not that it mattered to at least three other major outlets.

First at the plate was the Denver Post -- a predictable turn considering the partnership agreement between the broadsheet and Channel 9. Next up came KHOW talk show hosts Dan Caplis and Craig Silverman, who devoted a good portion of their afternoon drive-time show to Ulm interviews and discussions of the matter. And on February 20, the Rocky Mountain News played catch-up with an Ulm piece played as the first story in the local section. Such placement suggests that editors felt they'd missed a big scoop and wanted to get in on the action before it was too late.

Should they have? The Post's February 19 article, by reporter Joey Bunch, made as good an argument as possible for newsworthiness. Bunch interviewed Gregg McReynolds, the Ulm's lawyer, who wasn't even mentioned in the Channel 9 report, added a quote from an expert at the University of New Hampshire's Crimes Against Children Research Center, and noted that many kids knew that Ulm was being bullied but did nothing to intervene. However, the bottom line remained: As Bunch acknowledged, the Ulms had not decided whether or not to file a suit.

The Rocky's less laudable piece, from the pen of Jean Torkelson, plowed some of this ground, too. Still, the subhead affixed to it -- "German teen, dad weigh hate-crime suit over bullying" -- neatly underscores the dubious nature of the tale. In general, it's not news when someone thinks about doing something. It's only news when they actually do it.

There's no telling at this point if the media's gun-jumping makes a suit more or less likely. It's certainly possible that the coverage overload may stampede the Ulms into taking an action they've clearly been resisting for quite some time -- or they may hold off under the belief that the reportage has accomplished their goal of raising awareness about the incident and school bullying as a whole. But no matter what move they make, the eagerness of the aforementioned outlets to prematurely blow a highly relatable story out of proportion can't be considered a positive development.

And unfortunately, it can't be considered a surprise, either. -- Michael Roberts

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Michael Roberts has written for Westword since October 1990, serving stints as music editor and media columnist. He currently covers everything from breaking news and politics to sports and stories that defy categorization.
Contact: Michael Roberts