Friday, March 14, 2014

Sunshine Week is a good time to remind readers how and why certain information is reported as news

By Tim Mandell
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

One of the things that surprised me when I began working at newspapers was how little the public knew about newspaper operations. I started in sports, and parents were often surprised when I told them I had to go back to the office after the game to write the story, even though they knew the story would appear in the next morning's paper. It's not ignorance. They just didn't think about the newspaper process, probably because they were at the game for entertainment, and would go home, or go out to eat afterwards, while I was at the game because it was my job, and I had to finish my shift by writing the story and helping put out the paper.

But in covering community sports we rarely had to invoke the principle of freedom of information. There are times, such as when the combination of coaches and missing funds come up, but most complaints in community sports are that someone's kid didn't get mentioned enough, or at all, or that the story wasn't positive enough, which is another issue altogether, with some parents, coaches and players believing the local paper should serve as a glorified school paper.

Most complaints, in my experience, come from what's in the police blotter, crime stories and public records. No one wants to see their name, or the name of a friend or family member, associated with a crime, or something personal like a divorce or bankruptcy. Agitated readers often call, or visit papers, to complain about these stories, always asking the same questions, which all basically amount to the same thing: Why did you print this in your paper?

With Sunshine Week beginning Sunday, Bob Davis (right), editor of The Anniston Star in Anniston, Ala., addresses this challenge in a column explaining to readers why and how such stories appear in print, and what readers can do in response.

"In recent weeks, reporters and editors from The Star have heard from readers who were distressed that news involving a relative or friend made its way into our print and/or online editions. In their view, the reporters and editors were acting in an insensitive and sensationalistic manner, preying upon ordinary people in an attempt to sell newspapers," Davis writes. "That, of course, is not our intent. The Star follows established ethical guidelines for journalists that promote reporting that is fair, accurate and accountable. Part of that is making ample room for dissent, something apparent on our Facebook wall or Speakout column. Perhaps during their next trip to a mega retail outlet, shoppers can ask management where they put customer complaints. We publish ours prominently.

"The recent complaints about our coverage point to something else, however: We’ve not done a good enough job explaining our values. This need has grown more acute as newspaper readership has declined. So, when a newspaper reports on criminal proceedings and other sad stories of the human condition, it stands to reason that the un-newspapered will be shocked and hurt by the appearance of details regarding someone they knew and cared for, especially when it lands on our Facebook page out of the context of a printed newspaper. They might have no idea that such reporting has long been a staple of journalism.

"The press-freedom portion of the First Amendment is a compact between the Founders and future generations. A strong democracy depends on journalism to keep government honest. This applies from the top all the way to the bottom — from details about the federal government’s expansive domestic-spying program all the way down to the goings and comings of a county’s criminal justice system," Davis writes. "That’s why The Star, like so many other newspapers, aims to be the paper of record for our community. We publish a long list of public records — arrests, health inspections, bankruptcies, divorces, marriages, deaths and other official documents.

"This doesn’t make us a sensationalist tabloid, despite what our critics might say. It means we are following the traditions of community newspapering. We are keeping an eye on government, especially local and state functions. I can assure everyone that The Star’s newsroom realizes this work can cause very real pain for families and friends involved in this reporting. We regret that and do our best to inform the public without crossing the line into sensationalism. We do this work because we know a well-informed citizenry is essential to a strong democracy. The opposite model exists in totalitarian states where asking the wrong question can put a reporter behind bars." (Read more)

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