The proximity of community journalism is what has drawn me to this profession. There are no faceless millions here. The stories we tell and issues we cover are those of our friends, acquaintances and neighbors. If we don’t know them directly, we know someone who does. These connections alert us to collateral consequences of all varieties and increase our opportunity to practice the most responsible, compassionate and ethical way of reporting.
I learned early there was another road I could have taken. Way back in the day, one of my first freelance assignments for a large Chicago daily was a contentious issue involving complex points of view. Writing those with the proper and accurate context would require far more words than the paper allotted my story. I appealed to the editor. I said I couldn’t with such restrictions present both points of view.
“Pick one,” he said.
At that paper, they could “pick one” because their journalists will never see any of the people they’ve written about in line at the grocery store, on the sidelines of a ball field watching their kids play, sitting next to each other at a local fundraiser. Journalists called to larger pick-one papers have their reasons for being there, but accountability to the people they cover isn’t one of them.
There have been times when that kind of distance and anonymity would have felt pretty safe. Being snubbed at the grocery store or at the ball field isn’t fun, and there can be far more serious consequences or repercussions for reporting difficult issues when someone doesn’t want them reported.
Not for me, the comfort of safe distance. When you’re close and engaged and living the same lives as those you’re covering, you’re exposed and vulnerable, yes, but your compassion is real, your understanding genuine, your responsibility to your community and its people always at the forefront of your mind.
In this paper, we’re beginning our coverage of an issue that’s really close. Our publisher, owner and paycheck signer, Dave Eliot, has suggested an increase in the room tax. The Baileys Harbor Town Board, which Dave chairs, will consider the issue at its Nov. 23 meeting.
We will approach this story as we do all of the stories that we write. Here, we pulled in Jackson Parr, a former Pulse reporter who still writes for us occasionally. Jackson could give this story the time we felt it needed for as long as it took if Dave’s idea grows legs. Similarly, we now have a regular correspondent, Craig Sterrett, who’s writing for our Education and Green sections. Those are important, ongoing topics that require the continuous attention we could not reliably deliver with our two full-time news writers.
What makes Dave’s idea rather easy to cover is that it’s not an investigation. It’s not something secret or suppressed that we’re trying to uncover, something we need to expose. It’s an idea. Simply an idea.
And an idea is not inherently anything. It’s neither good nor evil, positive or negative. It only becomes those things when receivers attach their judgments to it based on their own perceptions, beliefs and biases.
Some may ask whether we enlisted Jackson because we believe an arm’s-length reporter can be more objective.The answer is no. The word “objective” was never intended to describe reporters, but rather, the method by which they report a story. All reporters, as members of the human species, have biases and preconceived ideas about issues; methods do not. Our methods will always deliver accurate and fair stories, no matter who’s doing the writing.
Just in case anyone asks.