Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training
 
 

Jim Pumarlo wrote a weekly column

  as editor at the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. His column was recognized in the Minnesota Newspaper Association's annual Better Newspaper Contest as a consistent winner in the category for "best explanation of news operations or ethics." He received the Minnesota News Council's first "Accountability Award" in 2000.

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Readers object to victory cigar

Categorized under:

Red Wing Republican Eagle

A handful of readers took the R-E and Goodhue County Sheriff-elect Dean Albers to task over a front-page photo the day following the election. The photographer captured Albers lighting a cigar at a victory celebration at a friend's house.

Bob Caneff, Hastings, wrote: "In Hastings we have a DARE program where police officers encourage young people not to smoke, which is the first step to drugs. The next time the sheriff wants to celebrate, I would suggest you should pull out your side arm and say, ëGive me your chocolate and nobody gets hurt.'"

A caller to People's Platform said: "The R-E could have used a better picture to depict our new sheriff-elect's victory. He is a role model and smoking a cigar sets a poor example for our young people."

The comments ordinarily would not be printed, but we published a sampling today to explain a point.

Albers as a public official is fair game for comment, and had he lit his cigar in a public setting — say, on the steps of the Courthouse on election night — we'd expect him to answer to the public's reaction. In fact, Caneff told us he was under the impression that the photo was taken in the Courthouse — that's what prompted his comments. In the same letter to us, he also passed along his best wishes to Albers during the next four years.

Reaction not unexpected
In this case, however, Albers was in a private home. The R-E photographer and reporter were present with Albers' consent.

In his defense, Albers said he hoped that we would not publish the photo. He no doubt suspected the reaction it would generate among some members of the public. In fact, a friend handed him the cigar. He took a couple of puffs and set it aside.

We did discuss whether to use the photo. We acknowledged that it likely would generate some detractors.

But we decided the photo was an expression of a candidate who had just finished a months-long campaign, a sign of relief at a hard-fought victory.

It's easy at this point to second-guess our decision. In hindsight, we probably should have run two photos to show the contrast of emotions for Albers that evening — he and his family huddled together in the Courthouse basement waiting for election totals, and then the celebration of victory.

Censor celebrations?
Then again, should we insulate our pages against any photo or article that might offend a segment of readers? Contrary to the claim of one of the objectors of the photo, tobacco is not an illegal product for adults.

What if Albers — or any other candidate — had popped a bottle of champagne in the aftermath of victory? Is that by itself sending a poor message to young people about drugs and alcohol? Such celebratory photos — from sports winners to political victors — routinely appear on television screens and newspaper pages.

We're sensitive to the readers' concerns. But we also think there's a place to show the true human emotion of something as exhilarating as a strenuous election victory.


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