The challenges of everyday decisions

Publishers Auxiliary/November 2005

Editors routinely hold their breath in anticipation of reader reaction following in-depth stories that culminate weeks-long investigations. The packages are typically prepared, reviewed and scrutinized again with painstaking care. The reality is that the everyday decisions – and resulting reports – in small-town newsrooms usually generate the greatest kickback.

Why isn’t a family permitted to include in a birth announcement all grandparents and brothers and sisters of the newborn? Why can’t a youth sports team expect to receive the same coverage as a varsity squad? Why won’t the newspaper regularly publish columns from all civic clubs?

Many news items require delicate handling. The stories may not be as emotionally charged as a suicide, but they still involve decisions not readily accepted or understood by most readers.

Newsrooms should discuss approaches and establish guidelines for what gets published. The most important practice may be laying the groundwork for how situations will be handled or explained to customers.

Everyday rigors of community newspapers are filled with potential land mines, including:

Editorials: Vigorous editorial pages are the conscience of vibrant communities. Newspapers that fulfill that role – many regard it a responsibility – should anticipate calls from their detractors, which can include advertisers. That does not mean newspapers should shy away from controversy. Rather, editorials demand the highest standard of writing and fact-finding. They should state the difficulty of an issue but point out that a particular position is being advocated for an overall good.

Obituaries: Newspapers which still publish free death notices must necessarily draw guidelines. For example, will names of all grandchildren and great-grandchildren be listed as survivors? Will an obituary list an individual’s hobbies? Are all obituaries written in a standard format and absent of flowery language?

“People” items: Readers expect newspapers to recognize births, graduations, military service, academic and employment honors, and other mainstay hometown items. The challenge is sorting out the accompanying information. How much biographical information will be included? Are parents and/or grandparents of the honorees listed? Are former residents recognized? Names of neighbors are the bread-and-butter of community newspapers, but limits must be drawn.

Engagements, weddings: Wedding write-ups, once accepted as run-of-the-mill news, now raise questions. Newspapers are placed in the position of defining what constitutes marriage, prompted by the increasing numbers of gay and lesbian couples who participate in ceremonies of civil unions.

Proclamations: Proclamations are wonderful for club scrapbooks, but proclamations in and of themselves are not news. If newspapers routinely cover the newsworthy events, editors should have little problem rejecting routine proclamations.

Police/court reports: Crime news is high interest and yet newspapers are challenged to present balanced reports. Initial reports typically include information from police or court complaints, but little from those accused. Newspapers have an obligation to inform readers, but also to give equal treatment to all parties in initial and follow-up stories, especially if charges prove unfounded.

Blind-sided attacks: How many times has someone appeared before a local government body to criticize an individual or organization? Reporters have little difficulty getting both sides of the story – if the accused are present. But what if individuals are not present? Stories have more meaning if the accused have a chance to respond – even if they offer no comment.

Public employees: Public employees should expect their salaries will be published and their decisions scrutinized. Editors must remember, however, that even public officials have private lives that should be respected. Do newspapers publish a reader’s inquiry regarding the poor condition of rental property owned by the mayor? Probably. But should newspapers write about a municipal sanitation worker who declares personal bankruptcy? Probably not.

Prominent citizens and their families: Editors often must decide when to acknowledge a connection between individuals and their families, employers or certain organizations. Newspapers typically confront these decisions in connection with “bad” news. Editors should not forget, however, the instances when prominent residents, or those residents who expect favorable treatment, ask that certain items get published that otherwise would not. Bending the rules for “good” news can produce just as many headaches for editors as looking the other way when “bad” news occurs.

Public records: The most defensible policy on public records is to publish all or nothing. Editors should not be in the position of judge and jury, determining when someone has a valid request for withholding information. Editors should expect to regularly field requests about withholding reports of marriages and divorces, bankruptcies, traffic citations, court reports, building permits, and many other public records.

These decisions, and many others, rarely are easy. Newspapers can simultaneously be assertive and responsible in their coverage of sensitive issues. And editors will be in a strongest position with readers if their decisions are guided by policies that emphasize fairness and consistency.