It’s always been this way, but maybe we’re just noticing it more these days.
Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people. We know this because Harold Kushner wrote an acclaimed nationall bestseller about it.
When bad tings happen to us, we don’t like to too much. But when bad things happen, there are those who must deal with such happenings up close and personal. And they’re not too happy about it either.
There is the police officer who stops a drunk driver, realizes he’s a prominent citizen of the community, but must arrest him anyway, write up a report about it, watch him get his photo taken at the jail and leave him in a cell to await a bond hearing. It wasn’t what the police officer wanted to do, but the horrific and possibly fatal accident that could have resulted had the officer simply given him a pass because of who he is would have been worse.
The police patrol the community to serve and protect. Someone’s got to do it. If not them, then who?
When those horrific accidents occur and mangled bodies are rushed to the emergency room, the skill and dedication of the doctors and nurses who frantically try to save the life of the person whose world has just been turned upside down is all that stands between life and the afterlife. The doctors don’t perform the miracles they do because they like seeing life hanging by a thread. But it’s their chosen profession, their calling. Someone’s got to do it. If not them, then who?
And when incidents like these occur, the media have to report on what happened. Those same media, in our case the newspaper, may find that they know that drunk driver who was arrested or that person now in ICU that the doctors managed to piece back together, who it is later discovered was the lucky one who survived the accident that killed a mother and her two young children.
The newspaper reporter may have just seen that family man at the Little League game or maybe he graduated from high school with him. And now he’s got to report that because of the man’s negligence, three people are dead and a prison term is likely … if he lives to go to trial. It’s not the kind of story the reporter necessarily wants to write, especially because he has a personal relationship with the subject of the article, but it’s the reporter’s job, his calling.
Someone’s got to do what our forefathers guaranteed for us. They empowered the Fourth Estate with absolute indemnity when they decided Freedom of the Press, not the right to bear arms or protection from unlawful search or the right to vote, was important enough to our society to be the very first amendment to the Constitution. We are called upon to help ensure the public’s right to information is not infringed upon. If not the media, then who?
In this day of the 24-hour news cycle and the pervasiveness of social media, the world has gotten much smaller. We know almost instantaneously what happens on the other side of the world. So just think how fast we know about what happens down the street?
To be sure, with gossip and rumors and innuendo and social media and blogs, it’s more and more difficult for those of us at the newspaper to actually dig out the news. About the only thing we can really hand our hat on is that, unlike gossip and rumors and social media, what we print is as accurate and factual as we can make it.
Good, credible, responsible newspapers don’t engage in the half-truths and juicy rhetoric and ax grinding that clogs social media and makes for really great stories regaled at the barber shop or the ballgame. Reporters are trained to be as objective and detached as humanly possible, reporting without prejudice or malice the five Ws: who, what, when, where and why. And of those building blocks for a newspaper story, the “who” is the one that cann create the biggest problems, the biggest conflict, the greatest soul searching.
Depending on what lands on a reporter’s desk, the “who” could be someone they just had a beer with and shot a game of pool with the night before last. The “who’s” kids could be best friends with the reporter’s kids. The “who” could sit in the same pew with the reporter on Sunday mornings. The “who” could have been their best friend in high school. The “who” could have been on his way to have dinner at the reporter’s house that very night. And now the “who” is the subject of the story the reporter has to write.
As newspaper people, we enjoy the feel-good stories as much as anyone. And we feel the same emotions as any reader when the feel-bad stories must be published.
We don’t go out of our way to find the stories that place people in an unflattering light. But when those stories present themselves, our responsibility to report the bad along with the good kicks in.
We don’t celebrate in the misfortunes of others. They have families. They may have a standing in the community. What happened may not have been their fault at all. Maybe they were a victim of circumstances. Maybe they had a bad day, or maybe they were having a bad life and no one noticed or no one reached out to help.
Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people.
If we decided what to publish and what to sweep under the rug based on if we know them or if we like them or if we think they’re really a good person who might just be having a rough time of it, then there wouldn’t be much in the newspaper. We as newspaper people wouldn’t be doing the job the public depends on us to do.
As much as a police officer or a doctor or a soldier or an attorney or a teacher, journalists wear their professions as a badge of honor. We do not take our responsibility lightly.
What we report may not be the happiest of stories, it may not be what some would like to see in the newspaper, it may seem that in publishing such a story the newspaper has been reckless and what some might believe to be malicious, and newspapers have borne that cross for centuries.
But like the police officer who wishes he didn’t have to arrest the football coach for whom he played and would have done anything he could to make him proud, or the doctor whose Sunday school teacher is lying unconscious on the ER table not knowing if he’ll be going home or to the funeral home, newspaper reporters can’t help but agonize from time to time about what their profession calls upon them to do. They don’t like to write stories about bad things happening to good people anymore than people like reading about them. But if they don’t do it, then who?
A free press and then commitment to ensuring the public’s right to know is why the media exist. For the most part, the rules are black and white. Do we wish there was some gray so that we could fudge here and there. Sure.
But when we bend the rules because of personal preference, where does it end? When does news stop becoming news and become special treatment for those we know, those with power, those with money, those with influence, those with special interests?
Our forefathers didn’t put a footnote to the First Amendment giving us permission to invoke only when convenient. They believed it made our nation stronger and better.
Bad things happen. Bad things happen to good people. And while we don’t like it, we have to report on it. Even when it hurts us to do so. But if we don’t do it, then who?
Lynn Adams is editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at [email protected] or 740-353-3101 ext. 1927.