Wednesday, January 31, 2007

What Happens When Past Editorials Come Back to Life?

Everyone has an opinion but not everyone puts them in print for the world to read.

That fact has caused grief for some newspaper editors and reporters who decide to switch careers and are then singled out for “politically incorrect speech” by persons offended by past editorials.

It can be a touchy situation when you change from an being an editor, where you are paid to write thought provoking editorials that may raise the hair on people’s neck, to other types of jobs where you can be encouraged to keep your personal opinions to yourself.

That fact led me to do a study in 2005 among other current and past newspaper editors. The goal was to determine what sort of impact past opinion columns and editorials have (or can have) on future work.


Imagine the day when you are no longer a newspaper editor or journalist. You apply for (or even get) another job which works with and represents diverse audiences and opinions. What happens when a potential employer, or co-worker, discovers an editorial you had written 12 years before? Assume also that the topic of the editorial, and position taken by you, are not in keeping with the position of your new (or potentially new) employer or co-worker.

What is a former editor to do? You may have written hundreds, maybe thousands, of editorials during your tenure. What can you, as a former editor whose work is available for the public to see, do to protect your career? What are you ethically bound to do? When does this become a First Amendment issue? And finally, what about damage control to your reputation?


Here are a few of the responses that were shared in regard to this journalism ethics scenario when it was posed to a group of nearly 300 practicing community journalists from around the United States.

Put it in context
“Unlike a tattoo that can be surgically removed, the newspaper, its editorials, and your work will be around as long as bound volumes remain at the county courthouse, the library keeps microfilm and the website archives are in place. I hope I am never ashamed of the work that I do, including the paper trail I leave behind. I think each editor needs to explain what they were thinking and doing five, 10 or 20 years ago to put an older editorial in perspective. Experiences change. Life changes. People are allowed to change their positions and philosophies.”
--- Stacy Chastian, editor, The News Observer in Blue Ridge, Ga.

This feedback came from local journalists.

Editorials reflect character
“I have written columns and editorials for over 28 years and I'm sure that anyone who had read them consistently has formed an opinion of my character and values based on the words I've written. I don't necessarily hold with the same opinions I had 15 or 20 years ago, but neither do I apologize for them. If a writer has been true to himself, then his editorials and columns are an honest reflection of his character and a part of the package. I am who I am. The question you pose is so far outside the realm of concern that I've never even considered it.”
--Jim Hamilton, editor, Herald Free-Press, Bolivar, Mo.

Editorials are supposed to be provocative
“An editor is always vulnerable to the ramifications of an editorial. Our publisher in 1940 wrote an editorial saying it was wrong for the U.S. to get into a war in Europe. I refer to it today as a classic. If the opinion piece can't be defended 10 years from now, it shouldn't be written today. Editors should not have to apologize for their work. If they do, they should have been more thoughtful in the first place. If the new employer has a problem with such a piece, there will be other problems in the future. Any employer should know an opinion piece, by the nature of opinion pieces, at times should be provocative. If an old one still is, the writer should be respected for delivering the goods, and any good writer should be able to work with a superior in shaping opinion pieces for the current market, even if the views haven't always matched.”
-- Murray Bishoff, editor, Monett Daily Times, Monett, Mo.

This national voice also chimed in with feedback.

What is the big deal?
“I don't see a problem. I've been writing editorials for 20 years on a daily basis. Anyone is welcome to go back and look at any of them. I know perfectly well that there are plenty of individuals, businesses and organizations that would never hire me because of editorials I have written over the years. That's the price I pay for telling the truth as I see it. If you are worried that someday someone might hold you accountable for what you are writing and that it might hurt your future earning potential, you have no business in this business. Those of us who set ourselves up as the conscience of our communities by writing editorials and pontificating on how others should conduct their own business or the public's business need to realize that we'll never become popular or beloved. The most we should hope for is that fair minded people will examine the body of our work and find that occasionally we made a point worth considering.”
-- James E. Reagen, Managing Editor, The Journal Advance News, Ogdensburg, N.Y.

Join in the discussion

Feel free to join in the discussion on this topic by submitting a comment to this blog.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Community Building with Community Journalism

When you find a newspaper that concentrates on local coverage, has a tone that is positive and supportive, and also strives to find solutions to community issues, you have found a newspaper that practices community journalism.

Community journalism is the belief that newspapers have an obligation that goes beyond just telling the news or unloading facts. Journalism can help empower a community or it can help disable it. In the small towns and cities of America, the local newspaper is one of the links that connects people. It is one of the ways the community is maintained. It is part of the local discussion on issues that concern a community.

True community journalism has been defined as the style of intensely local-first coverage provided by “small” newspapers. The American Society of Newspaper Editors draws the line between large and small newspapers at the 50,000 circulation mark. That means there are about 1,533 "small" daily newspapers and 7,437 small weeklies in America.

Southwest Missouri is dominated by community newspapers, which throw their news and editorial weight behind providing local coverage. The finest community newspapers know they are key stakeholders in the forces that help build and grow their communities.

In the small communities I know, the publisher, editor and reporters are recognized on the street. The people at the newspaper belong to the same local organizations and churches as the rest of the community. For the most part, the people at the newspaper fall into the same economic bracket as other the community members. There is an accessibility and interactive quality that makes the newspaper a community resource.

Community journalism means having newspapers concentrate on being a fair-minded participant in public life, with journalists as citizens, instead of reporters being detached. It means the local newspaper does more than describing what is going wrong; it imagines what "going right" would be like and how those community connections can be made.

It also means the local newspaper goes beyond seeing people as merely consumers or readers to seeing them as actors in arriving at democratic solutions to public problems.

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Is death notice of newspapers premature?

The changing landscape of print media is a frequent topic on this blog. And in one recent blog I wrote that more local coverage would help newspapers survive. Others in the area have shared similar thoughts and now an article with similar themes has appeared in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editor's quarterly magazine.

The article, "Hold that obit! The report of our death has been greatly exaggerated," is written by Jock Lauterer, the author of Community Journalism: Relentlessly Local 3rd. ed., 2006, the University of North Carolina Press. He teaches journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He can be contacted at

Here is a bit of what he has to say:

The late Charles Kuralt, with his typical gift for the cogent, was the first journalist I ever heard use the expression “relentlessly local.” And I would argue it’s that local-local-local news emphasis that gives the community papers their vision, identity, franchise and future. In the words of Pennsylvania community newspaper editor Jim Sachetti of the Bloomsburg Press-Enterprise, “Local? — It’s the only game in town!”

I would recommend the entire article, but in case you don't get around to it here is one more quote worth reading:

What is it about community papers that make them so viable? Consider the comments of cowboy poet and columnist Baxter Black, who wrote the following in a column titled, “Why I Love My Hometown Paper,” (a weekly in San Pedro, Ariz.): “Small-town papers often thrive because CNN or the New York Times are not going to scoop them for coverage of the ‘VFW Fish Fry’ or ‘Bridge Construction Delay’ or boys and girls playing basketball, receiving scholarships, graduating, getting married or going off to war... I think of local papers as the last refuge of unfiltered America — a running documentary of the warts and triumphs of Real People — unfettered by the Spin and Bias and the Opaque Polish of today’s Homogenized Journalism. It is the difference between Homemade Bread and Pop Tarts.”

ISWNE makes a contribution to the profession by publishing the Grassroots Editor, a quarterly journal that presents significant articles by journalists and academics. Ethical and legal matters are often discussed, and the present and future share the reader's attention with occasional articles of historical interest. The magazine, which comes with ISWNE membership, is also available by subscription and is found in libraries and journalism schools around the world.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

New Stories Should Focus on Person, Not Disability

I came across this story that I wrote in July of 2003 and felt like it was worth sharing again in this space as a reminder of something that is often over-looked:

There are over 54 million people with various types and degrees of disabilities in the United States according to Ann Morris, executive director of the Southwest Center for Independent Living, Springfield, Mo.

However, there is also a growing need for the news media to do a better job of portraying what it means to be disabled.

"If the disability is not part of the story, don't bring it up," said Morris. "And, if you do bring it up, don't sensationalize it by saying a person is 'afflicted with', 'suffers from', or is a 'victim of' a particular disability."

Morris also sees opportunities for the news media to show people with disabilities as active participants of society and to be a driving force in changing how society views them.

"What I would like to see is journalists talking more about how we value disabled people or showing examples of this, like writing about the expenditures being made toward ADA compliance," said Morris. "Instead of writing about a disability, focus on issues like accessible transportation, affordable health care and discrimination."

According to Dr. Chris Craig, assistant dean of education services at Southwest Missouri State University, the greatest need in news coverage is for the media to put people first.

"Talk about the person, not the disability by putting people first, with phrases like, the man who is blind, instead of focusing on the fact I am blind. If you have to mention the disability, be sure the story shows the disability is only one characteristic of the whole person," said Craig.

Another concern expressed by the panel is the tendency for the news media to portray successful people with disabilities as superhuman. Portraying people with disabilities as superstars raises false expectations that all people with disabilities should achieve this same level.

"Don't overstate the accomplishments of a disabled person because it gives the impression they are unusual when the fact is there are millions of very intelligent and successful disabled people," said Craig. "Overstating accomplishments, or writing about a disabled person's super achievement, can also give the impression that what they are doing is something other disabled people do all the time. Both of these are problems in the media."

Portraying persons with disabilities interacting with nondisabled people in social and work environments helps to break down barriers quicker than the Americans with Disabilities Act can.

"Laws don't change the hearts of people," said Craig.

Jami Johnson knows first hand the impact ADA can have but also the impact that people with disabilities can have when given a chance.

"Jami served on an MSU advisory board to bring about changes on the campus after the ADA went into effect," said her mother Cathy Johnson. "News stories at the time focused on the fact that she has muscular dystrophy and was serving on this committee instead of focusing on what she and the rest of the committee was accomplishing on campus."

Craig, Morris and the Johnsons were on a panel at a workshop entitled, "A Guide to the Americans with Disabilities Act," which was presented July 22, 2003, in Springfield, Mo., by the Society of Professional Journalists Southwest Missouri Chapter (SPJ).

What has been your experience reporting on these types of issues?

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Motives of Journalists on Trial in Andy Griffith Show

This past weekend I was watching an Andy Griffith episode with my kids. To be more specific, it was episode #61, "Andy on Trial," which aired in April 1962.

In some ways the story reminded me of a situation in southwest Missouri where a journalist is using his/her position to grind a personal ax. That is a dangerous and unethical practice and something most honest journalists avoid. But, it is something that is easy to let happen when newspaper staffs are so thin that the same journalist ends up writing both news stories and editorials.

Let me make the point by giving a recap of the Andy Griffith episode:

Andy travels to Raleigh to locate noted newspaper publisher J. Howard Jackson and bring him back to Mayberry. Two weeks earlier, Andy ticketed the businessman for speeding. Mr. Jackson was issued a summons to appear before the Mayberry justice of the peace (Andy) within a few days. He chose to ignore the summons.

Now, a very irritated Mr. Jackson, accompanied by his lawyer, reluctantly returns to the small town to stand before Andy. He pleads guilty and is fined $15. Upset by having to travel that far to pay such a small fine, the irate publisher leaves the courthouse vowing revenge. When he returns to Raleigh, he orders one of his reporters, Jean Boswell, to go to Mayberry and dig up all the "dirt" she can find on Andy, then twist it into a scathing article against the sheriff. He wants Andy’s reputation destroyed.

Being very discreet, the reporter taps Barney for anything that could be used against Andy. Barney, caught up in all the attention, proceeds to tell the reporter that if he were in charge he would run the sheriff's department differently. Barney continues to complain about crimes going unpunished (Emma Watson's jaywalking) and the blatant unofficial use of the squad car (delivering groceries to a shut-in). As you can imagine, Mr. Jackson uses Barney's words to write a scathing article about Andy's administration.

The episode concludes with a hearing to determine if the charges against Andy can be substantiated... . Barney reluctantly tells the court that he did say the things printed in the article ... (but) goes on to defend Andy as the best friend he and the town of Mayberry ever had.

Barney Fife may have summed up the problem in this TV show, and in the real life problem, best by saying, "When you are dealing with people you do a whole lot better if you go not so much by the book, but by the heart."

Journalists are in the people business. Yes, go after wrong doers and pursue the information citizens need to know but make sure your reporting is accurate. It is also good to remember that every story and editorial impacts a real person. That fact should be weighed against what is written and the accuracy of it, especially if the journalist is tempted to "go after" someone with a story or editorial

What do you think?