Wick Communications

You can’t print that!

In Ethics on February 6, 2014 at 5:08 pm
Lord Northcliffe

Lord Northcliffe

If you have been an editor for more than a week, someone somewhere has pleaded with you to keep something out of the newspaper. It’s a very uncomfortable thing to be the gatekeeper in a situation like that.

Whether to oblige isn’t always as obvious as it might seem in the ivory tower of journalism school.

We all know that we are filters. It’s part of the value we bring to our jobs. We sort through the data and bring readers things that delight and also things that they should know to be responsible citizens. That means that we very often print things that someone in the community would rather not see in black and white, but what do you do with all that stuff that is in the gray area?

Let me give you an example. Earlier this week a distraught businessman called me to plead that we not print the name of a potential tenant as he negotiates to buy the local post office building. The story was in and actually on the page, naming the tenant as a local health club. But the man was persuasive. He acknowledged the name of the business is in city documents and public record, but argued the deal is in a delicate stage and could fall through. …

I agreed to take out the name of the business. My reasoning was that the deal seemed far from complete and therefore naming a specific tenant seemed premature. I certainly could have left it in, but I rephrased it to say simply that one potential tenant had been identified.

Here are some things to consider the next time someone pleads to keep something out of the paper:

How important is it? Our story of the post office was headed for Page 8A. The tenant in question wasn’t mentioned until the fifth paragraph. We were discussing a private gym possibly moving 100 yards down the road, not some matter of importance to the democracy.

What is the motivation for the request? Is the requester attempting to hide something of import to your audience? Is the public better served by publishing or not publishing?

Can you confirm the information independently? I could have run with the gym information simply because it was in city documents. Often, we’re told something that a source wishes he hadn’t said. Then he calls and says you can’t possibly print that. Well, if you confirm it elsewhere, you can always tell him you got it independently.

Does the request come in the form of a threat? I am human. I’m more apt to make exceptions for people who are reasonable, rational and understand your right to publish. Don’t be intimidated.

In the end, your decision whether to withhold something you might otherwise print will likely be a judgment call. I’m certainly not suggesting you routinely bow to such requests. I’m merely saying they merit contemplation. If you decide to print, I’ve got your back. After all, as Lord Northcliffe, the British publisher, famously said: “News is what somebody somewhere wants to suppress; all the rest is advertising.”

Clay

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