Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper

Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper

by Jim Pumarlo

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Helps editors of small-town newspapers decide how to report on sensitive issues such as suicides, sexual abuse, and accidents.


Helps editors of small-town newspapers decide how to report on sensitive issues such as suicides, sexual abuse, and accidents.

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Marion Street Press, LLC
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Bad News and Good Judgment

A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issue in a Small-Town Newspaper

By Jim Pumarlo

Marion Street Press

Copyright © 2005 Jim Pumarlo
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936863-03-7


Foundation of the community press

Star athletes expect to read their names in the local newspaper after scoring three touchdowns or making a game-winning basket. But imagine the surprise — to them and their parents — when the community reads about an athlete's suspension for violating state high school league rules.

Photos also can be a shock. While all editors love to feature hometown pride, the reaction can be quite different when the page-one photo is the scene of a fatal accident involving a local resident.

Community newspapers need to print all the news — the good and the bad, but especially the sensitive and tough news — if they are to remain relevant. Covering these types of stories will ensure that the community press remains vital — that readers will continue to pick up the next edition.

It's a safe bet that most newspapers have been asked to announce the grand opening of a business. But how many business owners have initiated coverage of major layoffs or a closing? Are both items of equal news value?

How many editors would expect to be approached to publicize that a local sheriff's employee was named national corrections officer of the year? How many editors would expect to be notified if county officials placed their top jail administrator on leave for alleged violation of personnel policy? Are both items of equal news value?

Both scenarios occurred at the Red Wing Republican Eagle. All the stories — the good and bad news — were pursued and reported in detail. But, as one might expect, the "good" news was eagerly delivered to the newspaper staff, while the newspaper received the "bad" news secondhand through confidential tips.

Community newspapers must be prepared to print all the news if they are to survive. Local news includes stories that people like to read, and stories that may not be so welcome but are just as important.

Each year the community press is challenged for its market share as individuals turn to a variety of avenues for news. But no one is in a better position to report local news than writers in small-town newspapers — individuals who live, work and play on a daily basis with their readers.

Every editor can list the principal news elements that are key to vibrant community newspapers — coverage of schools and sports, reports on government decision-makers, features on civic clubs that add to local quality of life. But what about the sensitive stories? Those are equally important to communities, but are not so readily reported.

Consider these examples:

A high school basketball team was ranked among the top teams in the state. It was cruising along in first place, then got dumped unexpectedly by a lower-tier team. How did it happen? Two starters did not play — one was on a college recruiting trip and the other was disciplined for fighting.

A city dump truck collided with a motorcyclist, killing the cyclist. A clearly distraught truck driver crouched at the scene, consoled by a passer-by. The newspaper's photographer happened to pass the scene, capturing the full emotions in a photo.

An elementary-school boy committed suicide, apparently the result of excessive ribbing by classmates. The aftermath of the suicide lingered in the school.

All three incidents have common elements: They're being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people beyond the individuals involved. They're sensitive issues.

The overriding point, however, is that all three are news. They must be reported if community newspapers truly are to be recorders of living history.

Sensitive issues discussed in this book have another common element. Many people often view the "news" as an invasion of privacy. That can complicate getting a story and having it accepted by readers.

Take the example of a city's top economic development official who was fired by the board of directors. The dismissal opened the city to a lawsuit, raised questions about the viability of the agency, and placed a cloud over the integrity of the official. The person's performance was examined at a public meeting.

In contrast, consider a star basketball player suspended for two games. His absence increased the odds that the team's winning streak would be snapped, threatened the team's state ranking, and tarnished the athlete's character in the eyes of many players and fans.

Newspapers ought to be reporting both stories, but there is a key difference in the case of the suspended athlete. Many state laws prevent school officials from releasing any information about player discipline — even their names. Doing so may even subject school representatives to civil penalties.

But that should not be a reason for newspapers to avoid the story. From a practical standpoint, news of the athlete had circulated by word of mouth. More important, though, newspapers have a responsibility to report the facts. They have just as much an obligation to report the factors leading to a team's loss as they do to report the circumstances behind a city agency not performing up to par.

No doubt, it's much easier for big-city newspapers to report these stories. Editors and reporters are nameless and faceless among most readers. A story of a suspended athlete may be the only time a reporter has contact with a particular team or school. The story, though it creates a stir, is only one among a multitude of items in a metropolitan newspaper. Any protest — a threat to drop advertising or to encourage people to cancel their subscriptions — will have minimal financial ramifications.

Contrast that with circumstances facing small-town newsrooms. Editors and reporters are well known; many people identify them as "the newspaper." Sports reporters are practically team members; they are at most every game and know players and coaches on a first-name basis. The identification of a suspended athlete will be noticed. Any hint that newspapers could lose a major advertiser or a significant number of subscriptions will draw publishers' attention and possibly intervention.

The very elements that place small-town reporters in difficult predicaments also are the exact reasons they are in optimal position for writing about sensitive issues. Reporters may have personal connections, a friend or relative to the individuals involved. They might visualize themselves as the subject of a story.

The close relationship between community newspapers and the people they serve also can prove a hindrance, though. Residents will be quick to call editors, wondering why a particular item went unreported. Some of the same readers simultaneously will cry sensationalism for reporting that puts them in an unflattering light.

Sensationalism is a longstanding criticism of newspapers and was affirmed by the American Society of Newspaper Editors' Credibility Project. The report, first published in 1999, identified and addressed the root causes of journalism's dwindling credibility. Among the six major findings: "The public believes that newspapers chase and overcover sensational stories, because they're exciting and they sell papers. They don't believe these stories deserve the attention and play they get."

The finding is not surprising. In fact, many small-town editors probably agree and are quick to make a distinction between their conduct and the conduct of their metropolitan counterparts. They need only recall the last time a story in their own back yard drew statewide attention and big-city media flocked to their towns.

The research does have important lessons for community journalists, however. For instance, the ASNE study reported that 73 percent of the public believes "newspapers should not publish a news story if they can only reach one side for comment." That's basic in the pursuit of any story, but especially those involving challenging circumstances.

A project of the Free Press/Fair Press Project of The Freedom Forum in Arlington, Va., provides additional guidance. The research resulted in a handbook, "Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists," written by Robert J. Haiman, president emeritus and distinguished editor in residence at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.

The handbook was a result of conversations with the public during 1998-99 and identified nine reasons why the public thinks newspapers are unfair:

* They get the facts wrong. The frequency of errors — spelling and grammatical errors, wrong names, wrong titles, wrong addresses, wrong dates and other similar mistakes — is a major reason why the public is increasingly skeptical of what it reads.

* They refuse to admit errors. There is a broad feeling that newspapers not only make too many mistakes, but that they also are unwilling to correct them fully and promptly.

* They won't name names. The distaste for anonymous sources was reflected in the ASNE credibility study. In that survey, 77 percent of respondents said they were "somewhat" (49 percent) or "very" (28 percent) concerned about the credibility of a story that contained unidentified sources.

* They have ignorant or incompetent reporters. Business, community and civic leaders say they and their organizations often are covered by reporters who simply do not know enough about the subjects they are trying to report.

* They prey on the weak. The public believes the press often takes unfair advantage of people who are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the news and unprepared to deal with questioning by reporters.

* They concentrate on bad news. The concern that the press focuses too much on what is wrong, violent and bizarre, and that it never prints "good news," may be the longest-running complaint.

* They lack diversity. The American press has come a long way in the last 30 years in an effort to create newspapers that reflect their communities more fully and fairly, but the public believes much work remains in both newspaper employment and content.

* They allow editorial bias in news stories. The most powerful concern about bias raised in roundtables was the perception that news organizations had a "negative" bias.

* They can't admit that sometimes there's no story. Several elected and appointed office-holders in roundtables expressed frustration with reporters who seem absolutely convinced — at the very beginning of the reporting process and long before all bases have been touched — that their story is going to be a blockbuster.

Reporting the challenging stories necessarily involves ethical decisions. Many professional codes guide the work of journalists. Examples include those written by the Society of Professional Journalists, National Press Photographers Association and National Conference of Editorial Writers.

Ethics dictate that reporters approach these stories in a manner sensitive to the people involved. Ethics dictate fair and consistent coverage. Ethics dictate that news policies be well thought out and flexible enough to permit exceptions, when warranted. Ethics dictate that newspapers be responsible and accountable to their readers, and ready and willing to admit "we were wrong."

At the same time, adherence to ethical reporting should not negate aggressive reporting and, specifically, should not discourage printing stories viewed as unwelcome or disturbing to readers. Newspapers have an obligation and responsibility to report all the news.

Community newspapers walk a delicate path as one of the few remaining institutions governed by ethics and relevancy. It's incumbent that small-town editors and publishers preserve that bastion. The community press is a rich part of this nation's heritage and culture and yet is not understood by many people.

To that end, developing policies and then educating readers on how newsrooms operate is vitally important to newspapers' continued livelihood.

It's necessary again to reinforce the distinction between small-market and big-market newspapers. Small-town newspapers are not immune to such things as staff turnover or out-of-town ownership — ingredients that can lead to a disconnect between newspapers and readers. But, as a general rule, reporters in small towns identify better with their communities.

The Red Wing Republican Eagle prided itself in aggressive reporting of local news. Guidelines set forth in this book are not an attempt to convince editors that one newspaper's approach is the right way or only way. But it's imperative that newsrooms have the conversation about why it's important to tackle tough issues.

Editors will learn some procedures for developing news policies. That is only part of the equation. Policies are of little good if reporters can't get the information — facts not always readily available, or at least not willingly offered through routine news channels.

Newspapers also will get tips on how to explain news decisions to readers. Or, in some cases, it may be necessary for editors and reporters to state their cases within their own organizations. Witness an episode shared by Hal Tarleton, editor of The Wilson Daily Times, a newspaper of 16,500 circulation in North Carolina.

The story involved the death of a leading business executive who founded a paving and construction company. About 15 years earlier, he had been involved in a statewide fraud case involving collusion among paving companies in contract bids. He and several other executives were convicted and spent time in federal prison.

"He never talked to us about the case before or after his conviction, but, of course, it was front-page news," Tarleton said. "His death was also front-page news, and I wanted to include his fraud conviction, along with all of his accomplishments and accolades. A two-sentence mention of the conviction ran at the end of the story, on the jump page."

The newspaper was inundated with complaints, and many people canceled their subscriptions. "I told people who called me that when Nixon died (he was still alive at the time), Watergate would certainly be a part of his obit," Tarleton said.

What is local news?

The American Society of Newspaper Editors, through its Readership Issues Committee, published "The Local News Handbook" in 1999, in which it identified 10 dimensions of local news:

* Proximity. The closer news is to readers, the greater the interest.

* Safety. People must feel safe in their homes and neighborhoods; crime news has been a mainstay of newspaper content.

* Utility. Newspapers should provide information helpful in people's daily lives.

* Government. Intense coverage of local government is at the heart of community newspapers' missions, but it must be relevant to readers and encourage citizen participation.

* Education. Schools have a large place in the hearts and minds of citizens, and newspapers must cover them well.

* Spirituality. People seek others who share their beliefs and, in fact, many more people attend weekend worship services than sports events. Remember that when planning your religion pages.

* Support. Americans participate in a wide and rapidly growing variety of support groups.

* Identity. People want to feel they are part of a community.

* Recognition. Never underestimate the importance of getting people's names in print, even if it's in six-point type in a scoreboard.

* Empowerment. Community is defined by collective action on common concerns of life, and newspapers facilitate that.

How did the newspaper respond? Tarleton reported that his publisher wrote an editorial — the first he'd ever written — "more or less apologizing and extolling the businessman's many virtues." Tarleton said he still thinks the reporting was fair and reasonable in including the federal conviction in the obituary, but in retrospect, he's not sure it was worth all the flak the newspaper received.

Tarleton was correct in his approach to the story. But the example offers an important reminder that all departments — including management — must be involved in developing or at least being aware of policies for handling sensitive stories. Or, in the North Carolina example, the publisher might have been consulted about including the two sentences of sensitive information. Publishers are likely to support reporting the sensitive stories if they are involved in formulating policies and are informed of stories that have the potential of drawing reader criticism.

The most important lesson, however, is that newsrooms understand the importance of consistency and fairness in reporting any story, especially those involving sensitive and challenging circumstances. Readers may disagree with policies, but they will be even less forgiving if newspapers exercise double standards.


Developing a policy and making it known

Making the right decisions regarding sensitive stories is easier if you have policies in place. Elements of sound policies for reporting sensitive issues are similar to the elements of solid news stories. The same questions should be asked and the same avenues pursued:

* Who should participate in developing policies?

* What should be reported?

* Where should a story be displayed?

* When should a story be published?

* Why is it a story?

* How should policies be communicated?

Who should participate in developing policies?

The newspaper office is an excellent beginning point, and that doesn't mean soliciting ideas from reporters only. Include staff from circulation, composing, advertising, pressroom and the business office. Talk to carriers and motor route drivers. The circle of knowledge in developing policies is much broader than the collective mind of a newsroom. Newspaper employees and, by extension, their families and friends, bring to the table a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. In many instances, their values — their perspectives on how stories should be reported — can be a barometer of community values.


Excerpted from Bad News and Good Judgment by Jim Pumarlo. Copyright © 2005 Jim Pumarlo. Excerpted by permission of Marion Street Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Jim Pumarlo is a veteran newspaper editor in Minnesota.

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