Policies help guide reporting of sensitive stories

by | May 1, 2013 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

The Inlander/May 2013

Editors are routinely challenged with making uncomfortable news decisions. Pressed by a reader for your rationale, you respond, “That’s our policy,” or “It doesn’t meet our guidelines.” Later in the calm and privacy of your office, you reflect, “We could have done a better job.”

Connecting with your readers is the lifeblood of community newspapers. Editors are energized when they see local names and faces scattered from front to back page. It’s a bonus when the stories and photos represent “good” news.

That’s not always the case, unfortunately – if you’re doing your job in providing a living history of your communities. There’s going to be bad news, stories not welcomed by all readers.

A youth commits suicide, the result of bullying by classmates. A star athlete sits out two games after violating rules for alcohol use. A fatal accident scene is captured in a photo.

Deciding the approach to sensitive stories is easier if policies are in place. Elements of sound policies for reporting challenging stories are similar to the elements of solid news stories. The same questions – the five Ws and H – should be asked and the same avenues pursued.

Who should participate in developing policies?

The newspaper office is an excellent beginning point, and that means soliciting ideas beyond the newsroom. Employees and, by extension, their families and friends, bring to the table a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. Then there’s a vast second tier of people from which to seek opinions. Contacts should include those people directly affected by a policy, and others who may have a special perspective. Solicitation of opinions must be genuine. Editors also must be square with people that, in the end, the parameters of a policy will be a newspaper decision.

What should be reported?

Newsrooms must strive to treat similar circumstances in a similar manner, underscoring to readers that decisions are not arbitrary. Consistency, however, does not mean that each instance of a particular type of story is reported the same. Suicides are a case in point. Newspapers may decide to report suicides only if they meet certain criteria. Did the death involve a public official? Did it occur in a public setting? Did it prompt an investigation? Even then, guidelines are not always clear cut. For example, what is the definition of a public official?

When should a story be published?

Prompt reporting is particularly important when tackling sensitive issues. Don’t underestimate the impact of delayed reports. Consider a couple who went through a turbulent divorce and wants to put it behind them. The divorce, even though it’s a single line in the paper, is reported six weeks after the papers are signed and stirs renewed conversation in the community.

Where should a story be displayed?

This question, like many of the others, does not have a “one size fits all” answer. Some sensitive stories always deserve front-page coverage, and others are better suited for inside pages. Significance is a primary factor, just as it is in deciding the position of any story. Editors should pause a moment when reporting on sensitive issues. You will win points from readers by
avoiding the shock treatment of splashing a story on the front page.

Why is it a story?

Newsrooms post a list of “dos” and “don’ts” for almost everything that gets published. If you have guidelines for what constitutes business news, you also should be able to state with clarity the parameters for reporting on tough and sensitive issues. Consider all perspectives. In the case of a fatal accident, will a story spur a citizen petition to install traffic signals at a dangerous intersection? The nature of sensitive stories places an even greater burden on newspapers to explain decisions to readers.

How should policies be communicated?

Newspapers constantly promote their pages as the best avenue for businesses, organizations, institutions and individuals to deliver messages. Yet we remain among the worst at notifying readers of the hows and whys of our own operations. The greater care we take in explaining decisions, the more understanding readers will be of policies. It’s an easy process to notify the
individuals and organizations directly affected by policies. Equally important, newsroom policies and operations should be regularly communicated through a column from the editor or publisher.

Newspapers can go to great lengths to develop all sorts of policies, and they still will be caught flat-footed on occasion. Deadlines and other circumstances do not always allow newsrooms to proceed in an orderly fashion. Even the most comprehensive written policies are certain to miss some circumstances.

Another element – discussion – is common to all of these steps in developing policies. All decisions are stronger if the options are talked about with as many individuals as possible – people within and outside of the newsroom. Discussions don’t guarantee consensus, but it assures that editors will get many perspectives before making a final call.