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.

Send me an e-mail:

A matter of black and white

Racial segregation is alive and well in Riverhead.

It's true. Neighborhoods are mostly segregated by race. So are churches. And social circles.

And while our school system is integrated, legally and technically, the student population is, de facto, quite segregated.

There are exceptions, but they are minor. By and large, we live in a world -- and in a community -- where whites and blacks live side by side, but inhabit two very separate and distinct universes.

This has been driven home for me with disturbing clarity since the day my children started Riverhead High School. Attending various school programs, concerts and plays, you'd never know that you were in an ethnically and racially diverse school. The children on the stage and the people in the audience are nearly all white. All the time. We could be in Miller Place or some other almost-all-white community, not Riverhead.

I've peppered my daughters with questions about race relations among the students. They think I'm weird, maybe even a little obsessed. Blacks hang around with blacks, whites with whites, Hispanics with Hispanics, they report. The division is almost exclusive. They find this unremarkable. I find it astonishing. They point out that I don't have many black friends. I'm sorry to say, they are right.

But racial integration, while a technical reality, isn't any more of a social fact than it was when I was in high school in the early 1970s.

Every time I attend an event at the high school I look around at the nearly all-white audience and the nearly all-white cast or chorus or concert band or orchestra, and I wonder: why?

But at no time was this phenomenon more disquieting than last week, at a Black History Month celebration at Riverhead High School. There were four black people in the entire auditorium: one member of the chamber choir, two students -- both of whom were being honored for receiving awards from the African-American Advisory Board -- and an adult accompanying one of the student honorees. That was it.

As we sat through a slide show of photos of famous blacks -- from Frederick Douglas to Nelson Mandela to Tiger Woods -- curiously, Barack Obama was conspicuously absent -- my eyes wandered around the auditorium and I turned over the possible reasons for the all-white audience at the black history celebration at the high school last Thursday. All I could think was, "How bizarre."

OK, maybe we white people are truly more in need of black history lessons. Or maybe a black history celebration sponsored and presented by our white school district administration and teachers, complete with Negro spirituals sung by a nearly all-white choir, is something blacks would take a pass on. And why not? I can buy that. But that doesn't explain why there are so few black children in the music and drama programs at Riverhead High School.

It also says nothing about why my children's classes are almost entirely white. They are in a lot of honors and AP classes. Why is the enrollment in these courses so homogenous, so white? You can't tell me it's because minorities can't do the work. Something is wrong. There is a disconnect in our schools where race is concerned. And there has been forever. The point is, it continues. Even today. Maybe it's a reflection of the larger community, but it serves to perpetuate the status quo -- a status quo of racial, social and economic injustice.

Segregation is wrong. It is unhealthy for a society, whether it's "official" or de facto. But it's a fact of life in Riverhead even as we close out the first decade of the 21st century. The sooner we face it and come to terms with it, the sooner we can eliminate it, the better off we'll all be.