A few comments from our recent reader survey criticize the newspaper as timid in its coverage of controversial issues and soft on local officials.
I agree and disagree with these comments. Here’s why.
The Lincoln County News does not seek to focus on or “play up” conflict in local government for the sake of a spicy headline, which might generate a few more clicks and newsstand sales in the short term, but will turn readers away and diminish our sense of community in the long term.
Take the following hypothetical situation:
A reporter is covering a meeting of the local board of selectmen. The board and the town’s fire chief are discussing the potential construction of a new fire station.
The selectmen and the fire chief see things differently. Maybe the fire chief wants a station with six bay doors, while the selectmen say the town can only afford four.
Tempers heat up. Accusations fly. Maybe some mild profanity blemishes the sanctity of the town hall.
At the end of the meeting, however, the selectmen and fire chief agree to five bays.
Should the headline say “Local officials reach agreement on size of new fire station” or “Selectman calls fire chief a s—head?”
We would choose the former. Not every newspaper would.
Later in the story, you might read something about a “heated exchange” or “raised voices,” but we tend not to dwell on the conflict.
The story in this situation – hypothetical, but not so dissimilar to some we observe in the hundreds of municipal meetings we cover each year – is not the conflict. It is the accomplishment of taxpayer business and the furtherance of public safety.
You could call it a glass-half-full approach.
If the conflict was a pattern, with an official or officials angry and swearing at meeting after meeting, we would certainly inform our readers of such indecorous behavior.
But what does it accomplish to play up a one-time flaring of tempers or an offhand stupid comment?
It only serves to cement whatever bad feelings may linger, make it more difficult for those officials to work together, and diminish residents’ trust in their local government – all because their local officials happen to be human and susceptible to human faults.
So I suspect some of these criticisms come from our approach to such situations.
I suspect other criticisms come from our refusal to cover certain kinds of stories.
We rarely cover civil court cases – lawsuits and such – unless a case involves a public entity or a very high-profile situation.
Anyone can sue anyone for anything, or so it seems.
Most troubling for us is the fact that many civil cases end in confidential settlements. Thus, if we report the lawsuit and its claims, we could irreversibly damage the reputation of a person, business, etc., and there may never be a finding as to whether the claims had any basis in fact!
With criminal cases, there is always a finding – guilty, not guilty, or usually a plea deal somewhere between the original charge and complete absolution.
The defendant receives either vindication or judgment and the story has a conclusion.
There is no such conclusion in many civil cases, and the reader can only speculate as to the truth of the claims.
Other types of stories we tend to avoid include private neighbor vs. neighbor disputes and customer vs. business disputes.
Take your complaint to your neighbor, or to your code enforcement officer or police department if appropriate. Take your complaint to the business, or the agency that regulates the business. Once it enters the public sphere, it might become newsworthy.
Otherwise, we are not in the business of publicly shaming companies or organizations because one person claims to have had a bad experience.
I could go on about this subject at great length – how we choose what to cover, how we cover it, and why.
Journalism is not a science, as much as we try to make it one, and we may strike the wrong balance from time to time.
Could we sometimes be more aggressive in our coverage of local government? Yes, I think so.
Are we afraid of controversy? No – but we want to be sure that if we stir up a controversy, we do so in the public interest and not for our own short-term gain.