In September, we ran a Calvin Grondahl editorial cartoon that depicted President Barack Obama shining the shoes of a Wall Street banker.
Some readers thought this was a racist image rather than political satire. Even though I explained the news behind the cartoon, many were not convinced.
When people are initially offended, they tend to see what they want to see. Still, I understand that freedom of expression doesn't shield you from criticism, even if you believe the intent was misunderstood.
On July 4, we received about a half-dozen emails and phone calls from people who were offended by an anti-Obama float in the Huntsville parade. They indicated they believed the float was inappropriate, had racial overtones and may have been threatening.
One bone of contention seemed to be a sign on the back of a limo used in the float. All of the complaints indicated the sign referred to an assault weapons plan. One emailed letter was specific as to what the writer believed the wording of the sign was.
We felt this was news and assigned the story to a correspondent who had worked as a reporter and editor at the Standard-Examiner and lived at one time in Ogden Valley.
She spent the better part of July 5 chasing the story. She contacted city officials, but no one seemed to know, or would tell us, who was behind the float. We even contacted the editor of the Ogden Valley News to see if she could track down the sponsor or locate photos of the float.
By the end of the day, the correspondent wrote the story based on the information she had gathered from talking to several witnesses who agreed to give their names and quoting the one who was sure what the sign said.
One of the parade directors also told the correspondent that she had a sheriff's deputy check out the float, which indicated there was some concern about the float and sign before the parade began.
One of the hardest decisions we sometimes have to make is determining when a story is ready to publish. Editors felt we made a good-faith effort and that holding the story another day was no guarantee we would have received any more information.
The criteria for this type of decision has changed in the highly competitive digital age. Stories can change in hours or minutes, based on new information. Sometimes you have to publish a story as a starting point. We thought we had enough information with reaction from city officials to go with an initial story.
In hindsight, we could have published the letters online, as is our normal first step, and waited for reader comments to provide more context and leads for a news story.
It turns out that the witness was incorrect as to the wording of the sign, which read: "Ask about our assault weapons plan" and in smaller letters, "call Eric Holder." Holder is the U.S. attorney general, and the sign was referring to the Fast and Furious controversy.
This was a key element to the story, and it was our responsibility to report the correct wording. We updated the online version of the story by 10 a.m. the day it ran in print after we were emailed photos. We then did an interview with the sponsor of the float and ran a follow-up story in the next day's print edition. So in the course of a 24-hour period we had a balanced story.
The story ended up going viral in one form or another. Even though most of the other news organizations and blogs reporting on the controversy had the correct wording for the sign, many Huntsville residents blame our initial print story for setting off the whole brouhaha and giving the community a black eye.
I sympathize with their feelings and am sorry the witness got the sign wrong. (In an online posting, she says she hasn't changed her opinion.) However, I think this overall story was going viral regardless as it dealt with reaction to reaction during a politically charged election year.
There are similar instances across the country of stories going viral. In Montana, a man had an anti-Obama outhouse in a parade, and in Las Cruces, N.M., a Tea Party-sponsored float included a Confederate flag.
If Huntsville residents want to blame us, that's their prerogative. Anytime we are provided incorrect information and publish it, we are fair game for criticism. It comes with the territory,
There are just as many comments online defending the city and the float as there are attacking it.
The reactions are all based on perception. When it comes to political theater or cartoons, perception is the reality. We shouldn't be surprised if we think people overreact, misunderstand the intent or just don't like the message.
Andy Howell is executive editor of the Standard-Examiner. He can be reached at 801-625-4210 or email@example.com.