Cover small-town controversies with consistent policies

By Adolfo Mendez/Associate Editor/The Inlander
May 21, 2008

As editor of the Red Wing (Minn.) Republican Eagle, Jim Pumarlo knew how difficult it could be to cover controversial issues in a small town.

“Working at small papers can be tough,” Pumarlo told attendees at a recent Inland Press workshop for small newspapers. The local paper often has to write about sensitive issues involving “people who are our friends and neighbors,” he said.

Pumarlo, now a newspaper consultant, advocates that papers should create consistent policies ahead of a controversial issue in order to minimize causing unnecessary ill will in the community.

Case studies

Pumarlo offered three case studies common to newspapers: the suspension of high school athletes, traffic fatalities, and suicides. “It’s important to report all the news — good and bad — in your paper,” he said. “Understand the importance of consistency and fairness.”

During his 21 years as a newspaper editor, Pumarlo wrote a weekly column where he explained policies concerning coverage of hot-button issues. “The worst scenario is if you have a double standard,” he said. “You really have to think it through.”

For example, papers devote considerable amount of coverage to reporting high school sports. But the coverage may, on occasion, go beyond wins and losses. If a student player can’t play — be it for family emergency, sickness, injury or suspension — this should not be ignored by the paper.

To be consistent, however, a paper should give thought to its policy beyond sports coverage, such as the debate team or the band. Newspaper policies will differ from newsroom to newsroom, but Pumarlo believes not covering such topics draws credibility issues for the newspaper. “They are news, and I believe they should be reported in some fashion,” he said.

Pumarlo said stories about a suspended high school athlete, a traffic fatality or a suicide share three things in common:

1) They are being talked about in the community.

2) They are of ongoing importance.

3) They are sensitive issues.

A small-newspaper editor might decide not to identify a suspended student athlete “because everybody already knows” who it is, but Pumarlo takes issue with that thinking. “If the whole community knows, then why aren’t you reporting that?” he said. “Again, it goes to the credibility issue. What’s the news? What happened?

“If an athlete is sitting on the bench with a cast on his leg, people know what’s wrong,” Pumarlo said. “But if he’s sitting on the bench and looks perfectly healthy, people are going to wonder, ‘Why isn’t he playing?'”

Papers might have trouble confirming a suspension, and Pumarlo said his policy as editor was to have two people confirm it. “We also would not identify the specific violation,” he said. “We might say ‘school discipline,’ and leave it at that.”

When the Republican Eagle reported that a player was “on suspension for a State High School League violation,” the coaches retaliated by not talking to reporters for awhile. Undeterred, the paper continued its coverage, but noted in a post-game story: “The Red Wing players and Coach George Nemanich declined comment after the game in a unified protest over a paragraph in Tuesday’s newspaper about a player who was serving a suspension.”

“You might ask, ‘Why did you do that?'” Pumarlo said. “‘Isn’t that like putting the knife in the back and twisting it?’ We did it because they weren’t talking to us.”

But giving the local paper the silent treatment didn’t last very long. “We did not put the focus on the suspended athlete,” Pumarlo noted. “That finished our entanglement with the coaches.”

Despite the potential for community backlash, reporting on suspended athletes has a plus side, he added. “It’s far better than having the rumor swirl,” Pumarlo said. “You’re doing a great service by setting the record straight.”

That can also hold true in the case of a suicide. “If all you do with a suicide is write it as an obituary, it goes to the heart of credibility of the paper,” he said.

Pumarlo recommends avoiding the use of the word “suicide” in a headline or text. “Identify the cause of death, such as self-inflicted gun-shot wound, to squelch rumors,” he said. And don’t limit reports about suicides to only “public” officials. Report all suicides in the community, he said.

He recommends follow-up by doing second-day stories on such topics as the signs of depression.