Editors are routinely challenged with making uncomfortable news decisions. To be certain, there is no universal right or wrong call on whether to publish a story and in how much detail. Several factors may be in play including community norms and longstanding newspaper policy.

The examples of tough and sensitive issues are numerous and surface in everyday coverage. Stories can range from monitoring public employee wage negotiations and publishing salaries of public officials to identifying suspended high school athletes and reporting on labor strikes to interviewing families of homicide victims and publishing photos of fatal accident scenes.

Nothing is more challenging than reporting on violence, specifically mass shootings that are becoming commonplace across the United States. Gun Violence Archive reported 656 mass shootings in 2023. Respective numbers for 2022 and 2021 were 646 and 689. Newsrooms must be prepared to navigate a community in trauma – be sensitive in coverage and yet report the news. They must be ready to find their niche in reporting an event that will prompt widespread media coverage.

Rest assured, however, that other sensitive issues – those not so visible – are being talked about in communities. They have an impact on people. They must be reported if newspapers are to represent themselves as a living history of their hometowns.

Reporting these stories in a responsible fashion is a requisite if your newspaper is to remain relevant, especially in today’s fractured media landscape.

It’s healthy and essential for newsrooms to pause and consider whether readers are best served by reporting certain news. Newsrooms may have faced some of these scenarios often enough to have developed policies. Many times, however, decisions must be made on a quick turnaround.

Here is one checklist, and accompanying rationale, that advocates giving attention to 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, 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 fingertip, and a story sets the record straight.

How would you justify your decision to readers? Certain stories – an individual on trial for sexual abuse, for example – are expected to generate reader reaction, and editors should be prepared to answer questions. The hows and whys of coverage are ready-made fodder for an explanatory 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 and balance.

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 – community dialogue – is common to evaluating whether and what to publish. All decisions are stronger if the menu of options is explored with individuals within and outside your newspaper family. The conversations will not necessarily produce consensus, but seeking the opinions assures readers that decisions are not made on a whim.

Jim Pumarlo is former editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle. He writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of “Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage,” “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers.” He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.