Tuesday, November 14, 2006

When the news isn't good

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.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

It is a tough choice and I agree public officials, elected and otherwise should be held to a higher standard. Hopefully they seek these positions for the right reasons and that is to do something positive for the people they represent.

For instance we do not need hypocritical people in public service, who after they get elected decide that the job doesn't pay enough and then proceed with a campaign to raise their salary by 25+%. While campaigning they fool the electorate by saying that they will cut taxes and reduce the cost of government but then end up pushing for huge salary increases because they didn't know how hard the job was. Well my question is, "why did you want to get elected"?

Again I agree that public officials should be held accountable for their hypocracy and flip-flopping because it ends up costing the taxpayers more than necessary.

ceil said...

We know this is a small town where everyone knows everyone else - and sometimes their business. I am just learning this after coming from relative anonymity living in New York City.
However, public officials in the public eye should be aware of this - and hey having an affair on my tax dollars is my business. The highway Superintendent DWI -he used poor judgement and had his license suspended as would any citizen.
Responsible journalism is reported as facts not gossip. I am not in your position, however, I can see these kind of news stories are a hard call - especially if you mmet these people in your day to day life.