By Don Nelson
One of our readers walked into the newspaper office this week to ask about how we intended to cover a story about a local retailer that faced an Internet assault last week related to some merchandise the store displayed (See Controversial T-shirts no longer being sold at Winthrop store). He wasn’t asking in any accusatory way, but as a matter of genuine concern. He’s worried about the personal and professional welfare of those involved, and I appreciated that he invested the time and interest. We had a good chat and I thanked him for keeping us on our toes and reminding us of what’s at stake.
We share his concerns, but we also have a journalistic responsibility to the community. That can create a dilemma.
I’ve never expected any sympathy about the hard choices that journalists sometimes have to make about how, or whether, to cover controversial topics in their own backyard. It’s the professional path we’ve chosen and it probably wins us about an equal number of supporters and critics. Our decisions, large and small, are formed with a combination of fundamental guidelines, ethical considerations, practical concerns and competitive pressures all coming to bear. It’s not an entirely bloodless process — we are all human beings with sensibilities about how our efforts impact other people. Nor is it entirely rigid.
Much is made in the journalism profession these days about “transparency” — that is, being more forthcoming and revealing about how we make decisions. The intent, I suppose, is to convince more information consumers that we don’t operate in some moral airlock, or take our directions from shadowy characters whose goal is to shape public opinion by whatever means necessary.
Well, there isn’t anybody like that here. There’s just me, in the fishbowl that is small-town journalism, trying to do what serves the community best. Which doesn’t always simultaneously serve individuals, institutions or government agencies best.
That is not a theoretical. We — my staff and I — spent a fair amount of time this week talking about how to fairly and sensitively report on the local retailer’s experience that went viral last week in a toxic, instantaneous flash. We didn’t really consider whether it was a story we needed to cover. The exposure was already so widespread that ignoring it would have looked unprofessional, cowardly or duplicitous.
Yet in another sense, the explosively changing nature of information generation and distribution has created a different, more hard-edged decision-making atmosphere, one that morphs even as we report on quickly evolving stories. “Coverage” is a moving target, especially for a publication that comes out every seven days and has a limited ability to report for our online audience.
Still, ignoring things raises just as many questions as shining a spotlight on them.
One could fairly ask, do we perpetuate conflict by reporting it? Do we prolong the discomfort of people who are in the middle of the story?
Perhaps, and those are not inconsequential outcomes. But our prime directive is to keep this community reliably informed about what’s going on here, whether it’s hard to hear or not, so that ultimately we can make collective decisions about how to support and build on the things that make the Methow Valley strong and resilient.
For that we often get ripped on bulletin boards and smugly second-guessed by the perpetually, furiously, self-righteously aggrieved community of nameless trolls.
We’re not anonymous. We live here and are recognizable. We’re accessible, take our own calls, and will often talk to you if you walk in unannounced. We won’t always make decisions that keep everyone happy. But we’ll do our best to explain our decision-making process in a way that doesn’t come across as callous, defensive or self-serving. Some people will never be convinced; some will hold grudges; some will bad-mouth us around town (we heard about instances of that this week). We live and work with that understanding. There are lots of easier ways to do this job. None of them would produce what our readers deserve and expect.