Newspapers need to print all the news

by | Apr 1, 2005 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/April 2005

Star athletes expect to read their names in the local newspaper after scoring three touchdowns or making a game-winning basket. But imagine the shock – to them and their parents – when the community reads about an athlete’s suspension for violation of state high school league rules.

General news photos also can be a shock. And while all editors love to feature hometown pride, the reaction can be quite different when the page-one photo is the scene of a fatal accident involving a local resident.

If they are to remain relevant, community newspapers need to print all the news – the good and the bad, but especially the sensitive and ethically challenging news. Covering these types of stories will ensure that readers young and old will continue to pick up the next edition.

Each year the community press is challenged for its market share as individuals turn to a variety of avenues for news. But no one is in better position to report the whole basket of local news than the writers in community newspapers – individuals who live, work and play with readers on a daily basis.

Most everyone can list the principal news elements of strong community newspapers – coverage of schools and sports, reports on local government bodies, features on civic clubs that add to the local quality of life. Readers come to expect these kinds of stories that are readily accessible and generally easy to report.

But what about the sensitive stories – those that are equally a fabric of life in local communities but not so easily reported. The information often is difficult to get. Once collected, the story may pose circumstances that warrant special or sensitive treatment.

For example:

  • A high school basketball team is ranked among the top teams in the state. It’s cruising along in first place, then gets dumped unexpectedly by a lower-tier team. The reason? Two starters do not play – one because he’s on a college recruiting trip and another for school disciplinary reasons after getting in a fight. 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, capturing the full emotions in a photo. Do you run it?
  • An elementary-school boy commits suicide, apparently the result of excessive taunting by classmates. The aftermath lingers in school. What do you report?

All three incidents are being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people. They’re sensitive issues. The overriding point, however, is that all three items are news. They must be reported if community newspapers truly are to be the recorders of living history.

Reporting the story, however, is but the second of three important steps when dealing with sensitive subjects.

The first step is to have a plan. Editors and publishers must have procedures for developing news policies so decisions do not have to be made in haste with little or no foundation. After reporting the story, the final step is to explain the policy to readers.

Newspapers routinely report sensitive stories obtained from official, public sources.

Take the example of a city’s top economic development official who was fired by the board of directors. Not everyone relishes the airing of personnel matters, but most accept the fact that it was all done at a public meeting.

In contrast, consider a star basketball player suspended for two games whose absence threatened his team’s state ranking. In many small towns, the player’s suspension arguably is of greater interest. Newspapers have as much obligation to report the factors leading to a team’s loss as they do to report the circumstances behind why a city agency is not performing up to par.

No doubt, it’s much easier for big-city newspapers to report these stories. Editors and reporters are nameless and faceless among most readers. The very elements that place small-town reporters in difficult predicaments also are the exact reasons why they are in optimum position for writing about sensitive issues. Reporters may have personal connections as a friend or even relative to the individuals involved. They might even visualize themselves as the subject of a story.

Community newspapers walk a delicate path as one of the few, remaining institutions governed by ethics and relevancy. It’s incumbent that small-town editors and publishers preserve that bastion. The community press is a rich part of this nation’s heritage and culture and yet is not understood by many people.

To that end, developing policies and then educating readers on how newsrooms operate is vitally important to newspapers’ livelihood.

The most important lesson, however, is that newsrooms need to understand the importance of consistency and fairness in reporting any story, especially those involving sensitive and challenging circumstances. Readers may disagree with policies, but they will be even more unforgiving if newspapers exercise double standards.