Friday, June 17, 2011

But is it news?

In the current issue of my hyperlocal on-line newspaper, The Hillsdale News, I wrote the following editorial. It raises some important questions, which I posed to my readers. I'm looking for comment from Red Electric readers as well.

Recently I've been challenged to answer the most basic question in journalism: What is news? Or more specifically, what is the news I should include in this hyperlocal publication?

I frequently get calls and e-mails from readers who want to bring certain worrying events to my attention. I'll give you some examples, but first let me share a few principles I try to use in determining what is important to pass on to readers.

Number one is "Do no harm." That's not always easy, but at least it raises two related questions: Will the story cause harm and to whom? Can this harm be justified? Will the harm caused by public exposure lead to a greater good?

Another question is whether the "story" will resolve itself. Will the parties involved find a solution on their own without my exposing it to public view? Indeed, will public exposure make it even more difficult to resolve.

Next, is there a public need to know about a problem? Does it violate a matter of public policy? Is it illegal? Are elected officials involved? Is public money involved? If so, how much?

Finally, is this a story that is wider in scope than Hillsdale? Has it been covered, or should it logically be covered, in a media outlet with a wider readership?

With those "news values" in mind consider these stories.

1. A citizen's complains at a neighborhood association meeting about a proposed new brew pub.

2. Landlords in Hillsdale have been named in a widely published city-wide report about discriminatory landlords.

3. A parent has submitted a formal complaint to the State and to the school district about a teacher, accusing the teacher of presenting issues in a biased way. The parent criticizes school administrators of being slow to respond.

4. Another parent complains about the rental of City parks facilities to parents who then fail to supervise teens using those facilities. The result has been a public disturbance and the alleged illegal use of drugs and alcohol.

Note that by simply writing those few words, I'm alerting parties concerned that the stories are on my radar. That may have effect in itself.

Before I share how I applied my "news values" screen to each, I invite you to apply your own to the stories. Question: Would you report on and publish these stories in the Hillsdale News?

What did I do? Let's take them one by one:

1. The objection to the new brew pub came up at a recent Hillsdale Neighborhood Association meeting. Both the complainant and the pub owner were present. The consensus at the meeting was that the two parties should sit down and work out the concerns. I decided to let that happen without publicity. I told both to get in touch with me if they were at an impasse. Sitting next to me was Jim Mayer of The Oregonian. He chose to write the story which ended up in the June 11 Oregonian in the "Community" section. It was also on his news blog, where it attracted the all-too-familiar vituberative comments.

2. The landlord story was widely reported in The Oregonian so I decided to let it go. I may follow up later to see how renewed efforts to enforce anti-discriminatory regulations are working here in Hillsdale.

3. I also chose to let the complaint about the teacher work its way through the system. In fact, the ability, or inability, of the school district and state authorities to deal with the complaint seemed more important than the alleged bias. I'm watching this one to see what happens.

4. The complaint about seemingly negligent parents renting facilities to be used by unsupervised teens should be shared with the officials renting the space. If the problem persists after the complaint is lodged, I'd pursue the story.

There it is. Now you make the call. As always, I'm interested in what you are thinking.

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