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Ombudsman

Covering the Cavs

By Michael Getler
Sunday, October 10, 2004; Page B06

On Tuesday, comedian Rodney Dangerfield died at the age of 82. His death prompted extensive obituaries and remembrances in newspapers and on television stations around the country because he made millions of people laugh with his relentlessly self-deprecating humor and his trademark complaint: "I don't get no respect!"

That also seems to be the way many fans of the University of Virginia football team feel about coverage of their alma mater in The Post's Sports section: not much prominent coverage, which translates, in their view, to no respect. At least that was the case in the weeks leading up to Thursday night's game against Clemson.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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Going into that game, Virginia was undefeated in its first four games and ranked 10th nationally in the Associated Press poll. Yet the team rarely cracked the front page of the Sports section -- dominated, when it comes to college football, by the 23rd-ranked Terrapins of the University of Maryland and the Hokies of Virginia Tech, who did not make the top 25. And the U-Va. Cavaliers never seem to merit one of those nice and newsy inside features called Terrapins Notebook or Hokies Notebook.

The complaints are interesting because they reveal tensions for editors and readers between demographics and news judgment. The University of Virginia is a large and prestigious school. But it is about 120 miles away by road from Washington, in Charlottesville. On the other hand, Virginia Tech, in Blacksburg, is even farther -- about 300 miles. The University of Maryland in College Park is nearby, clearly a local team and local favorite by any standard, and in recent years a consistently formidable power in both basketball and football.

But The Post is the largest newspaper circulating in Virginia, with more than 308,000 daily readers there, and 433,000-plus on Sunday. And U-Va. says it has more than 32,000 alumni in the Washington and Northern Virginia area, plus many thousands more students, parents and family linked in some fashion to the university. So it shouldn't be ignored when they say, in essence, "we don't get no respect."

As the complaining readers viewed it, The Post has been behind other news organizations in "recognizing the best college football being played in the region," as one reader put it. Several readers, most of them alumni, acknowledge that U-Va. has played a relatively easy schedule thus far and remains to be truly tested. But their point was that they were being snubbed by The Post and that these early-season successes seemed to have been only reluctantly recognized compared to the much heavier coverage of Maryland and Virginia Tech.

"Show some love for U-Va., for crying out loud. This is a special season. We are led by a great coach," writes another reader. "Results should dictate your coverage, not out-of-date [reader] surveys," says another. "You have a significant share of your reading public having attended or otherwise having some allegiance to the University of Virginia," adds another, "and yet you treat it as if it were the State University of New York or some other faraway place with no relationship to this area."

Asked about these complaints, The Post's Sports editor, Emilio Garcia-Ruiz, answered one reader this way: "Our coverage decisions on local college sports are based on readership surveys the past two years clearly showing that the interest in the University of Maryland is twice as high as it is for Virginia. In fact, Maryland football and basketball are the two most important topics behind the Redskins for our readers, above our other pro sports teams, the Wizards and Capitals.

"I believe there are many reasons for this," he said, "but the simple one is that by winning the national championship in basketball and going to football bowl games the past few years, Maryland has attracted a much greater following, blowing away old stereotypes about interest in the Terrapins. Add to that a new Maryland arena, and you have the spike in interest that is reflected in our readership numbers (as well as sellouts and other indicators). Virginia, meanwhile, has been respectable in football but struggled badly in basketball. Like Georgetown [basketball], we have seen a huge erosion in Virginia interest.

"Meanwhile, Virginia Tech football continues to increase in our surveys. Selling out FedEx Field for the USC game was all the evidence most people need. The other issue is that Virginia's football team has some of the most restrictive media access rules in the country, so that on non-game days it is very difficult for reporters to talk to players in informal settings that yield the best stories."

As a reader, I found more coverage of U-Va. football, especially by special correspondent Jim Reedy, than readers suggested, albeit almost always well inside the Sports section. On Thursday and Friday, as Virginia beat Clemson to go 5-0, the stories got solid front-page attention in Sports.

Maryland clearly is the dominant story and interest. But it does seem to me that U-Va. has been a better story than has been reflected in the paper and that it shouldn't be too hard to keep news priorities straight while alerting, in a prominent way, both sports fans and Virginia readers that the distant cousin is having a pretty good year.

The Post had a whopper of a mistake in Thursday's front-page headline that said "U.S. 'Almost All Wrong' on Weapons" over a story about the report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, Charles A. Duelfer. The quotation was in the story too; the problem was that it came from former inspector David Kay nine months ago. A correction that appeared Friday didn't explain how it happened, as is customary. There is no room here to do so but it boils down to a transcription mistake, by a normally excellent and careful reporter, that wasn't caught.

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


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