A checklist for evaluating, advocating coverage of sensitive issues

by | Nov 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/November 2009

How many editors have faced reporting bad news – or, put another way – making an uncomfortable news decision? Pressed by a reader for the rationale, you’ve replied, “That’s our policy,” or “It doesn’t meet our guidelines.” Yet, in the calm and privacy of your office, you reflect, “We could have done a better job.”

The examples of tough issues are numerous, especially in community newspapers. Stories can range from following teacher negotiations or publishing salaries of public officials to reporting business layoffs or interviewing families of homicide victims.

Consider three of the most sensitive issues:

  • A high school hockey team, picked by many to win the state title, opens its season without its starting goalie who is serving a suspension for a state high school league violation. The team still wins, thanks in part to a stellar performance by a backup goalie with no varsity experience. What do you report?
  • A city dump truck collides with a motorcyclist, killing the cyclist. A clearly distraught truck driver crouches at the scene, consoled by a passer-by. Your photographer happens to pass the scene minutes after the collision, capturing the full emotions in a photo. Do you publish the photo?
  • An elementary-school boy commits suicide, apparently the result of excessive ribbing by classmates. The aftermath of this suicide, more so than others we have witnessed in the community, lingers in the school. How do you handle the story?

All of these incidents are being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people. They are sensitive issues. And they are news. They should be reported if newspapers are to represent themselves as a living history of their home towns. Reporting these stories in a responsible fashion is a requisite for community newspapers to remain relevant, especially during these rapidly changing times.

It’s natural, and healthy, for newsrooms to pause and consider whether readers are served by the reporting of certain news. Here is one checklist, and accompanying rationale, that advocates the publication of challenging stories.

Is it true? Newspapers routinely report why athletes are “missing in action” – whether due to an injury, a family emergency or a college recruiting trip. Sitting on a bench for violating school or high school league rules is equally newsworthy.

What is the impact of an event? It’s standard procedure at most schools to call in counselors in the wake of an untimely death of a classmate, whether the death is due to natural causes or a suicide. The death automatically becomes conversation in homes. Can newspapers ignore the story?

Is the report fair? Teacher salary negotiations often are emotional and acrimonious. At the same time, the salaries can represent 75 percent of a school district’s budget. Newspapers are performing a vital service by keeping a community abreast of contract talks, giving equal attention to all sides of all issues.

Is it a public or strictly private issue? A closure of a major employer has a tremendous economic impact on a community. The news begs for explanation and interpretation.

Will the story make a difference? A newspaper’s attention to a fatal accident, including a photo, can become a springboard for action to install traffic signals at a dangerous intersection.

Will the truth quell rumors? A newspaper receives word from an elementary school student that a high school teacher lost all his fingers in a lab experiment – the “news” clearly spreading quickly. An investigation reveals that the teacher lost a finger tip, and a story sets the record straight.

How would you justify your decision to readers? Certain stories are expected to generate reader reaction, and editors should be prepared to answer questions. The circumstances might provide excellent fodder for a column to readers.

How would you treat the story if you were the subject? This question is not intended to prompt rejection of a story. Rather, it’s a reminder to treat the story with sensitivity.

In the end, fairness and consistency should be guiding principles for any story, and they are especially important when dealing with sensitive subjects.

Another element – discussion – is common to all of these questions in deciding whether and what to publish. All decisions are stronger if the options are talked about with as many individuals as possible – people within and outside of the newsroom. Discussion doesn’t mean consensus will be developed, but it assures that editors will get many perspectives before making a final call.