‘Found’ Coverage Play Pales Against National Alerts About ‘Lost’ Ranch Teens

October 14th, 2013 · 1 Comment · journalism

By Denise Tessier

The Journal’s just-launched ABQpaperboy feature got it right, even if the print edition of the paper didn’t, when it came to the play given to the “found” story about the teens from Tierra Blanca Ranch.

Today’s top story on the new online service called “paperboy” — the emailing of top story headlines and links — was, appropriately, “Teens from ranch are all accounted for.”

In the same day’s print Journal , however, that significant story ran on A4. Seeing it buried there, this reader took a second look at the front page to compare what was there in terms of news value, and to evaluate whether any could have been shortened to keep the ranch story from being bumped inside. All on A1 were A1-worthy, but room could and should have been made for the teen story, even if it was just a boxed promo leading in to A4.

The reason: Anything less is pretty much unfair because the Journal on Saturday had plastered at the top of A1 the state’s issuance of a national “Amber Alert” for nine teenage residents of the southern New Mexico youth ranch.

Amber Alerts are issued when people go missing – either because they’ve wandered off and gotten lost or, more sinisterly, because they’ve been kidnapped.

Make no mistake, the latter is what was in readers’ and viewers’ minds after reading news coverage — amplified by ravenous-for-scandal weekend coverage on local TV — of both the serious abuse allegations against the ranch by the state’s Department of Children, Youth and Families and the ranch’s decision to fight back via lawsuit.

Monday’s story revealed that the last five boys had been found safe with their parents. Similarly, four boys were reported safe on Sunday, which was reported in the Journal on B1. Both “found” stories deserved better play considering the exposure given to stories that the youths were “missing.”

Some background: Before the raid, Journal Investigative Reporter Mike Gallagher had brought to light that CYFD was investigating the ranch for alleged abuse, following it up with a story that the Tierra Blanca Ranch High Country Youth Program and owner Scott Chandler had filed a lawsuit last week against CYFD to end the investigation.

From Gallagher’s Friday story, which ran the morning of the raid:

The lawsuit, filed in Truth or Consequences, claims CYFD violated its own procedures for conducting an investigation, showed bias when questioning children and threatened their parents with prosecution if they didn’t remove their children from the program.

Chandler said, “It wasn’t an investigation. They came in and threatened to shut the program down. Parents are being threatened. Children told they have to leave by Thursday. That doesn’t sound impartial.

Though the suit was filed in Truth or Consequences, Pete Domenici Jr., attorney for the ranch, held a press conference in front of the Albuquerque/Bernalillo County Government Center to draw attention to the suit and frame media coverage by bringing along two young ranch graduates who vouched for the ranch’s methods and disputed abuse allegations.

Gallagher’s story said:

Parents sign over a power of attorney to Chandler when their children enter the program, which includes a biblical component. The parents agree to allow behavior modification, including physical punishment.

As Gallagher’s story indicated in the very last paragraph, even parents have conflicting views about the program. Referring to the parents of Jon Cowen, one of the graduates who attended the press conference:

Cowan’s father is a critic of the program. His mother is a strong supporter.

The online comment stream on Gallagher’s story about the allegations of abuse  similarly reveals that people either support or condemn Chandler’s methods, making this a difficult morass not only for reporters but conceivably, investigators.

In the front-page Amber Alert story that ran Saturday, Gallagher said Domenici had issued a statement Friday “in which he said the boys are safe and would be turned over to their parents.” But Gallagher added that Domenici “did not say when that would happen.” Gallagher quoted Domenici’s statement as saying the boys were on a “previously scheduled activity away from the ranch for several days” and that parents would contact State Police to confirm their children’s safety.

CYFD arrived on the ranch Friday with sealed court orders that would have enabled the state to take the boys into protective custody, according to Gallagher’s story, “State searches for missing teens.” (Scroll down from to read this story online.)

Questions remained Monday as to how long these boys were with their parents before State Police were able to confirm in person that each was in parental custody. And as of Monday’s report, police were unwilling to comment on whether Chandler’s whereabouts were known.

It’s a tricky story, against an unsaid backdrop of Gov. Susana Martinez’s administration already under fire for its handling of allegations against state behavioral health centers. The stories also indicate that both sides are trying to play the media – with the ranch staging a press conference and the state drawing national attention to the case by issuing nine Amber Alerts.

Gallagher appears to be getting all pertinent information in his stories about the ranch, including reportage about the governor’s role in the investigation, and this is not a criticism of that reportage.

But downplaying the news that all boys were with their parents, ending a highly publicized series of Amber Alerts, merited better play.


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One Comment so far ↓

  • Gail Cowen

    “Lost” was on the front page A1, but “found” was on A4 – so unjust and yet it played out like this in the news across the entire nation. And the underlying question of how can Teens “found” when they were NEVER “LOST”, but were either in the custody of their legal guardian or to their parents is troubling (my understanding). To me, this demeaned the meaning of all Amber Alerts which is the really unfortunate fallout, the other is that all of these teens will forever be identified in social media as “troubled” – full names, birthdays – information that is so private thrust into national news.

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