Wick Communications

When to connect the dots

In journalism on 30 Nov 2012 at 10:32 am


(When is it appropriate to note the relationships between principals in a news story? I’m not asking if you can, but whether you should. This is an everyday question for those of us at small newspapers. The following first appeared in the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors November newsletter. It’s reprinted with permission from the ISWNE and Bill Reader, who is an associate professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University. — Clay)

A perennial challenge in community journalism is deciding when to name names in news copy. The issue transcends whether the information is public record ‒- which is a legal consideration -‒ and is more about ethics. That is, the question rarely is whether the newspaper is allowed to publish the names, but whether it should. Because most communities are small enough that, it is assumed, everybody in the community knows everybody else, the naming of names in the newspaper can have a dramatic ripple effect. “That’s So-and-So’s son,” or “Her mother was So-and-So,” can amplify the fame -‒ or infamy ‒- can amplify the effects of printing a name.

ISWNE member Dan Robrish, editor of The Elizabethtown Advocate in south-central Pennsylvania, was facing one of those dilemmas in October after he received a complaint. At issue was the local high-school football team, in which one of the team quarterbacks was the son of the coach. Robrish wrote to the ISWNE “Hotline” listserv:

“The football team’s head coach is the father of one of the quarterbacks. I have consistently mentioned the relationship in stories that mention both of them because I don’t want to look like I’m covering something up. This morning, I got an angry e-mail message from the player’s mother/coach’s wife saying that her son is his own person and that I am being disrespectful by mentioning the relationship. I’m sure nearly everyone who covers high school sports has encountered this situation. How do you handle this and why?” …

The question received nearly two-dozen responses from ISWNE members (and the question also was assigned to students in my Community Journalism class at Ohio University).

Many of the responses supported the repeated reminders of the father-son relationship between coach and player, particularly if both were mentioned, or quoted, in the article.

“We had a similar situation last year. Head coach and center ‒- father and son,” wrote Cindy Slovak-Barton of the Hays Free Press in Kyle, Texas. “We mentioned it every time, if for no other reason than to not confuse readers. ‘Head coach Blake Feldt said…,’ ‘Center Boone Feldt said… .’ I think you have to clarify or you have a problem. Our center went on to play college football this year. I don’t think recruiters had a problem knowing that Boone Feldt was his own person.” (Feldt plays for the University of North Texas, part of the Division I-A Sun Belt Conference.)

But a few suggested that explaining the relationship repeatedly may be overkill. Ken Garner, sports editor of the Navarre Press in the Florida panhandle, shared this (via Press publisher Sandi Kemp): “It’s easy to go overboard trying to cover such a relationship. I would mention the relationship in the season preview/outlook and perhaps even do a feature on the father-son, coach-player dynamic ‒- it’s a relatively common story. After that, I wouldn’t mention the relationship in future stories unless there’s a compelling reason.

“If readers complain the relationship is being ‘covered up,’ send them clips of the earlier stories and explain to them just what the mother said: the player is an individual who deserves to be covered as an individual,” Garner continued. “If there is a legitimate controversy over whether the son is being favored over another, more deserving player, I would handle that in a column ‒- after getting the coach’s side of the story.”

Several responses suggested that making such a connection could be interpreted (or, more likely, misinterpreted) as an insinuation of nepotism. Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tenn., picked up on that possibility: “Sounds like the Mom, at least, thinks you may be implying something to the effect that her son gets favorable treatment from her husband. … I have a hard time figuring out why the mom would be upset. I would think she’d be proud that her son and her husband are together on the team.

“As you know, parents already are ‘way sensitive’ when it comes to their sports-playing children,” Martin continued, noting that it is reasonable to mention the relationship at least once per article. “I’ve been chewed out a few times over the years. But you’re not writing for that family. You’re writing for your readers.”

The “dad’s my coach” situation also comes up in Medford, Wis., according to Brian Wilson, news editor of The Star News there. Wilson’s advice is to not make the connection too often, and only if necessary.

“For small schools and communities this is actually a fairly common occurrence,” Wilson wrote. “We make no reference to the relationship in our coverage, other than perhaps in a feature-type story or season preview. On the field or court they are just another player, and repeatedly singling them out as the coach’s kid just makes it seem as if they are getting preferential treatment because they are the coach’s kid. Is that the question you are seeking to raise in your readers’ minds?

“To me it would be the same as pointing out if the player’s mother was the local bank president or the player’s older sister is the mayor,” Wilson continued. “Full disclosure has its place and is a necessity in some situations. However, news hole is tight enough without telling people something they all already know and which has little relevance to the game coverage story.”

John M. Wylie II, publisher of the Oologah Lake Leader in Oklahoma, also sided against naming the father-child relationship when the coach’s kid is on the team. “In this case, the mom has a valid point,” Wylie wrote. “There…is no reason to put a bulls-eye on a kid’s back just because he/she is the offspring of the coach. In most cases, the only relationship between being a coach’s kid and being outstanding on the field is that the coach has taken time to be a good mom or dad over the years and taught the basics of good sportsmanship, fitness, skills and the game at home as well as on the field.”

But Wylie also echoed Martin’s frustration with overly sensitive parents.

“Overbearing sports moms also can be a problem,” he wrote. “We finally got sick of it 10 years ago with a mom who actually counted the number of mentions of each girl in each story about girls’ basketball and griped loudly if her kid didn’t rank first. We got fed up and let her ‒ and the rest of the team and moms ‒ know that if it happened one more time we would simply terminate all girls’ basketball coverage for the rest of the season, no matter what, and would let the kids, other moms, coaches and [athletic director] know exactly why. Can’t recall the details, it was too long ago, but the problem ended immediately.”

Of course, the issue becomes a bit more complicated when the star athlete isn’t the coach’s kid, but the kid of the newspaper editor ‒ as is the case with Christine Smith of the Dubois (Wyoming) Frontier. “Imagine being the editor of small town newspaper (me) whose daughter is on the high school sports teams and turning out to be pretty good, and therefore is mentioned by the coach in articles,” Smith wrote. “Ha!”

Martin sent a second response in that regard: “My daughter was a good enough softball player that she was normally a key part of the team’s success, and there was never a complaint to me or the coach about favorable coverage,” he wrote. “She became the first D1 college softball player from her high school. As a one-man shop, I had the great but odd honor of interviewing her about it.”

Bill Reader can be contacted at reader@ohio.edu.




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