Wick Communications

Should we hold this story?

In journalism on April 2, 2010 at 8:27 am

There is a big story in town. Say a coalition of business leaders have been meeting behind closed doors to debate getting rid of the chamber of commerce director. The chamber director is a well-known woman, she attends nearly every function in town and last year the city council proclaimed her Woman of the Year. She has been responsible for a few high-profile changes around here, including an initiative to issue bonds to build that new bridge – a project that leaves the city on the hook for $10 million should tax receipts falter. Trouble is, she has managed to alienate some of her constituents.

You have this story, not by a thread, but by the throat. Two of the business leaders confirmed their plans, and the chamber director says she knows what detractors have been up to and she vows to fight them in a very public way.

One thing, though. The city manager asks that you sit on the story until they get another director lined up. He worries that a new hotel chain will look elsewhere if officials with the chain know how volatile the local business community can be. He says millions in tax receipts are at stake.

What do you do?

I’m sure you have a similar story. Sources often seem as interested in the timing of our journalism as they are with that journalism itself. It’s understandable. And your response is usually a tough call. Many times, these local sources are your friends or at least people you have worked with for a long time. You may feel that if you scratch their back this time, they’ll scratch yours when you have an itch. Furthermore, you may think they are right, that there is a compelling reason to wait to publish.

Here’s how I approach these things. My prime directive is to inform readers who have put their trust in me. To be sure, there are many other considerations. Our newspaper benefits if business in the town is good. We have wonderful relationships with many of the town’s movers and shakers. I want to have a working relationship with policemen, union officials, teachers – an array of people in town with often conflicting priorities. But my primary goal is to inform readers who have put their trust in me.

There are other reasons why you should balk at holding a story. Another media organization or a blogger might beat you to the punch. If that happens often enough you will no longer be the first place people go for news and information. And if folks know you have done it before, you can bet they’ll ask you to do it again. Be careful. That can put you in the position of playing favorites and there is no end to that game.

Usually, it’s easiest to remember your prime directive. You aren’t responsible for the fallout. That said, I recognize these are tough decisions that can only be made locally and on a case-by-case basis.

Clay

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  1. Clay,

    Good advice. The readers to think about are the families of newcomers. They don’t have the same inside line or history as the city manager, the chamber network or the journalist. They can be at a huge disadvantage without news and information.

    Later,
    sc

  2. Thanks Clay, but I have to disagree just a little bit, because I don’t think this is a tough call at all. It’s a legitimate story of local importance and to sit on it would be, in my opinion, an unethical skewing of the situation by the newspaper. If the business community is volatile like that, then that’s the truth. I’m reminded of another story I saw a few years ago of a newspaper that actually ran a fictitious story at the request of law enforcement to help catch a criminal. The main focus, as you correctly point out, is our readers and the trust they have in us to report the truth, not make intentional decisions to influence outcomes. Any fallout that comes from reporting the story is caused by the situation, not the newspaper upholding its mission of truthfully reporting information. It comes back to that old line that we publish for our readers, not our sources.

  3. I agree with emphasis on readers’ needs first, not getting beat by competition, but think there are stories where you have to weigh it all out, not just plow ahead and publish no matter what. What if local sheriff asks you, other local media, to hold off publishing about roundup of people wanted on outstanding warrants, realizing word will get out but trying to keep those wanted from scattering any quicker than they might otherwise? Or sheriff asks us to hold off two days publishing name of person arrested while they attempt to catch those who assisted him in the crime, and makes good case for why it’s necessary? Is “now” always right? Most of the time, I think yes, but I have found times I think it prudent to wait.

  4. Good point, Will. Like all good rules of thumb there are exceptions and there may well be times when it behooves you to obey the requests of law enforcement. I think those are different from, say, the mayor asking you to hold off on a story until he gets everyone on board for his new proposal.
    I guess I would say start from the point of view that we publish as soon as humanly possible. And move the bar when there is really compelling reason to do so.

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