Thursday, May 11, 2006

Rule 1: Consider the source

We received an anonymous letter at the newspaper this week, accusing us of being “soft” on our local school districts. We only print the good news about our schools, wrote the author of this neatly typed missive alleging our malfeasance.

I can imagine dozens of school board members and district administrators across the Times/Review Newspaper coverage area, stretching from Orient Point on the east to Mount Sinai on the west, laughing out loud as they read these words. That’s because they have a distinctly different opinion of our coverage, and I know it because I’ve heard about it. Repeatedly. We go out of our way to print the negative about our schools, district officials have complained. If something bad happens, we’re on it. Good stuff? We hardly notice.

To some people, we’re sugar-coating news about our schools. We’re in bed with the establishment, helping them to pick the pockets of the taxpayers by making sure that our school districts are portrayed in the best possible light. To some inside the establishment, we’re in cahoots with the disgruntled troublemakers of the world on most issues, and being members of the fourth estate, we of course thrive on and seek out the negative.

And here we are, in the middle, viewed with suspicion by the two warring sides.

Amen and hallelujah — we must be doing something right. Everybody’s mad at us!

When I was just a few years out of law school, as a hearing officer at the New York City Department of Consumer Affairs, a veteran lawyer at the agency coached me in negotiation skills. Hearing officers often had to broker settlements in complaints between consumers and businesses. “When both sides sign the agreement but walk away from the table unhappy,” he told me, “you know you’ve done a good job.” At the time, I thought this advice was completely bizarre. I was 27, idealistic and a bit naive. I wanted everyone to sign the agreement and walk away happy.

That lawyer’s words have come back to me many times over the years. And I heard his voice again on Monday as I contemplated the allegations in the letter. The advice takes on new meaning for me in the field of journalism. Important new meaning. Nobody we cover as journalists should ever feel too happy with us. Nobody should ever feel like we’re their best friends — or even that we’re their friends at all. In this business, friendship can be a dangerous thing. It can color your perspective, maybe even make you look the other way when you shouldn’t. Nobody should ever be so comfortable with you that they think they can influence or even control what ends up in print on the pages of your newspaper.

So when the establishment and the anti-establishment each think we’re carrying water for the other side, we know we’ve done our job right.

Now, what kind of person would want a job whose measure of success is the extent to which she is mistrusted and even reviled by her neighbors? That’s another story altogether, and probably best answered on a therapist’s couch.

To the author of that anonymous letter, I’d sure like the opportunity to answer each point you raised. I can’t do that here because we’re not in the business of printing — and thereby spreading — unsubstantiated rumors. With one exception, we’d heard each of the rumors you wrote about and did what responsible journalists do before they print anything: We checked them out. (We’re looking into the one we hadn’t heard before your letter came.) None of them panned out. One came close, but we couldn’t get anybody to go on the record with anything of substance, so we couldn’t report it.

That’s the difference between real journalism and some of the stuff masquerading as journalism on Internet message boards and weblogs today: checking, documenting, sourcing things on the record. We may not always get everything right, because we’re only human, but it’s not for lack of trying. We don’t print things we’ve heard without doing our level best to confirm their veracity. And we never, ever run to press with a story from an anonymous source. We’ll protect a the confidentiality of a source who can’t go on the record, but we need to know who our source is and understand the valid reason why he or she needs to remain unidentified before we’ll pursue a story. And except in the rarest of situations — I can’t even think of one right now — we won’t take it to print without confirming the story on the record with other people.

We’re held accountable for what we print, as we should be. That’s also why we don’t print anonymous letters to the editor. Accountability helps ensure truthfulness. If you really believe in what you’re saying, if it’s the truth, then you sign your name to it. To the author of that anonymous letter — you know who you are — I’d love to discuss the things you wrote. Give me a call.