Thursday, March 06, 2008

The burden of bearing bad news

No one said this job was going to be easy.

Just about everything you do, every decision you make, is scrutinized by thousands of people. You lay yourself on the line every week, opening yourself to the criticism that comes along with that kind of scrutiny. And you do it in the context of a small-town community, a place where everybody knows everyone else.

And every mistake you make is made on the public stage.

All of that comes with the territory.

Assessing my perceived thick skin, a coworker recently remarked, "You don't care if people don't like you." That's not exactly true. I'm no different from everyone else; I want to be liked. But I understand that the job I have to do often requires me to make decisions that get people mad at me, even make them dislike me (or worse).

So, you steel yourself for it. Buck up and take it. You do it because you believe in your work, believe in the inherent value of what you do, you believe in the importance of good community journalism. You do your best to do the right thing, present the facts, tell the truth -- because that's what you're supposed to do.

At no time is this job tougher than when it requires you to make a decision like the one I had to make last week, when a local woman, a woman employed in the classroom in our local public school system, was arrested and charged with statutory rape as a result of an alleged sexual relationship with a 15-year-old boy.

All sorts of things go through your head when you hear something like that.

As the mother of a 15-year-old myself, I admit to having a visceral protective reaction. Child sexual abuse angers me.

As the editor and co-publisher of the local newspaper, I have to deal with it on an entirely different level. It is our job to report the news -- fairly, truthfully, accurately. And this is the kind of news that is especially difficult and tricky to report. Because what is alleged to have happened is a tragedy for all involved -- for the child, the abuser, their families, the school district, the community. It's difficult and tricky because we are a small, close-knit community and this news (like almost all the news we report) affects our neighbors, colleagues, friends and the people we work for -- you, our readers. It's even more difficult and tricky for us, as your local newspaper, when the story, like the one in question, is one that's picked up by the wire services and published by print and broadcast media across the country. And then there's the Internet, of course, where it's been a topic of much discussion on message boards far and wide. And all of that dissemination happens in between the weekly newspaper's regular publication days.

There are those who argue that The Suffolk Times should not have printed the story. We've got some letters on these pages today criticizing us for doing so. We've also got a few we can't print here, because the people who wrote them lacked the courage to sign their names to them.

Some people believe the local newspaper should react to horrors like the Commins rape charge as a family member might react. You circle the wagons, close ranks, protect your own. You don't wash your dirty laundry in public. But if we did that in circumstances like these, we wouldn't be a newspaper -- we'd be a community cheerleader. The Suffolk Times would quickly become irrelevant in this age of immediate, free-flowing news and information. If our newspaper last week did not include a story that had been plastered all over newspapers, TV and radio for nearly an entire week before, wouldn't you, as a reader, forever wonder what else wasn't being printed in The Suffolk Times?

That's the heart of it. Our readers need to know that they can count on The Suffolk Times to report the unvarnished truth fairly, accurately and completely. That's not to say we will never make a mistake. Journalists are, in fact, human. But The Suffolk Times will never sugarcoat the news or spike a news story in order to be polite or loyal to family, friends, advertisers or the community at large. Some days, that's a really hard mission to fulfill. But no one ever said this job was going to be easy.

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Anonymous said...

Your newspaper is top notch and your coverage is quite fair. Such stories are certainly newsworthy and people have to realize that shutting their eyes and ears to something like that doesn't mean it did not happen. Keep up the good work that you do in informing the community.

Anonymous said...

What was the womans first name? I think the last name was Commins?