Sunday, August 17, 2008

Tests for rural journalism, from a thoughtful editor

When Ben Ezzell, editor and publisher of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Tex., died in 1993, his daughter and successor, Laurie Ezzell Brown, left, kept up the paper's hard-nosed attitude and quickly had a run-in with the local school superintendent, who responded to her editorial criticism by saying “Your daddy wouldn’t have done it that way.”

Brown recalled this month, “After a long, deep breath, I said, ‘Maybe not, but he would have been the first to defend my doing it that way.’ And there is the sweet kernel of truth. There is no one way, one absolute dead certain way, to do it. But there are tests of whether and how the job of community journalism must be done.”

Brown outlined her tests during a panel discussion, "Case Studies of Courage in Community Journalism," at this month's convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications. It was one of the more inspiring commentaries on rural journalism we have ever heard. Here is part of it, starting with her tests:

"Is it true and factual? Have I asked the right questions? Have I given the truth every chance to tell itself? Have I listened?

"Is it honest? — which, strangely, is different from truth, in that it demands a gut check, a moment of naked reckoning with oneself. Can I live with the consequences? Am I willing to accept the costs? When I am accosted in the produce section of the grocery store, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and longing for the comfort of a home-cooked meal, can I defend it?

"Is it fair? Did I choose a truth and then find the facts I needed to support it? Or did the truth find me? When the young woman sits weeping at my desk for an hour begging me not to report the story that will change her life, can I justify what I am about to do? And when she flings rocks through my window the following night, can I walk away from anger?

"The hardest part of community journalism is also the most rewarding part. We live within what we write about. Either we know what we report, or we are called on the carpet within hours, if not minutes, to account for our mistakes. We look our stories in the face every day. We meet them eye to eye. And if we deny their humanity, if we feel no compassion, then we have failed to grasp the story’s essence, and will fail the story’s telling." For Brown’s full remarks, click here.

In introducing the panel, as director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, I said, "It is more difficult to practice ethical, hard-nosed journalism in smaller communities than it is in big cities. We all know the reasons: personal connections, organizational obligations, business pressures and so on. But if community journalism is to be more than the red-headed stepchild of our craft, if it is to fulfill the promise of the First Amendment for its readers, viewers and listeners, courage is essential. And one thing the Institute tries to do is lift up and exalt those community journalists who show courage – in order to inspire other community journalists and to remind the journalism community at large about the special challenges that face journalists who try to make the First Amendment a living document at the local level."

The panel began with a video about Tom and Pat Gish, publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky. For more on the Gishes, click here. They inspired the meteoric career of Homer Marcum, who was editor and publisher of The Martin Countian in Inez, Ky., in the 1970s and 1980s and spoke about them on the panel. Speaking after Brown was Bernard “Buddy” Stein, right, until recently the editor and co-publisher of The Riverdale Press in The Bronx, N.Y. For details of the panel discussion, click here.

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