Sometimes this job requires really tough decisions. Every week we publish police reports that contain allegations about people that the subjects of the report would rather not have published. We are frequently contacted by people who've been arrested (or by their friends and relatives) to ask us not to publish news of their arrest. Our answer is always the same: If it's in the police blotter, we print it, no exceptions. We had an editor once in the inenviable position of having to print news of his own child's DWI arrest.
A lot of folks think we relish this. Nothing could be further from the truth. We hate it.
Then there are the less-than-black-and-white situations we have to make judgment calls on. A couple of weeks ago, we ran a story in The News-Review about the Riverhead Highway Superintendent being charged with DWI one night in the Village of Quogue. Normally we wouldn't run a story about a local resident being charged with DWI out of town. For one thing, we don't look at all the police reports other towns. But this was an elected official. And his driver's license was suspended, meaning the town highway superintendent couldn't drive a vehicle on the public highways. So it seemed newsworthy enough to merit coverage. But decisions like these gnaw at you long after they're made.
Then there was the Riverhead schools superintendent, who was apparently conducting a romantic affair with a woman on the district administrative staff. He was asked to resign as a result of the school board's discovery of this relationship. We reported it, especially because we learned that the superintendent and the employee were conducting their affair during business hours. We didn't disclose the woman's name in the paper — though I haven't met anyone in town who doesn't know who she is anyway.
But, boy, these are tough decisions. So, too, are decisions about whether to publish reports of suicides, photos of fatal motor vehicle accidents and articles about high school athletes being suspended from school.
I bought a book at the National Newspaper Association convention last year called "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper." One of the author's main points is that policies on reporting these kinds of stories must be clear, consistent and put in writing for all staff. And they should be clearly explained to readers in the paper, by way of editors' columns. That's something we haven't done enough of, and something I need to address.
The "Bad News..." book indicates that we made the right calls on both of these recent tough stories, mostly because the lives of public officials and public employees, whose salaries are paid by tax dollars, merit a higher level of scrutiny than private citizens. But that doesn't make it any easier to write and publish stories like that, nor does it make it any easier when you have to encounter the people you publish "bad news" about in the supermarket, or on your kid's soccer field, etc.