We get all sorts of news tips and comments, as you can imagine. Some, well truly deserve no reply, not even a thanks. Rudeness can know no bounds, as you might expect. But I’m thrilled in little ways when I can provide an answer, a direction to an answer, offer up what someone needs, shed a little light.
“I just completed grand jury duty and I am wondering why you report on certain cases and don’t report on others,” a lady recently asked.
Oh man, that could fill a book or 3. Maybe one day it will. But in the meantime, we had a nice, non-confrontational exchange – and toward the end, I wrote that maybe I should blog about it, and she said, yes, I should – ‘it is so interesting.”
Well, I think so too. Some times I really do think the anger or frustration people feel about institutions such as, say, government or the media come from a lack of knowledge or understanding. Not always, of course, and I sure don’t want to talk down to or call folks’ ignorant. But some just crave some insight – a peek behind the curtain, you might say.
So here’s some expanded thoughts on what I had to say to that really good, thankfully nicely put, curious, non-accusatory question;-)
There are a host of factors that go into what stories get covered or don’t — sometimes ‘equal’ crimes or crashes or fires or the daily grist of breaking news make it into a broadcast or onto the Website or not simply because we do or don’t know about them. Again, for a variety of reasons – it may seem someone asks us every time they hear a siren or see a police car speeding somewhere, but some times those trees just fall in a part of the News Forest where they don’t make a sound, and people assume/presume we know when we don’t. (Then there are those who think we know everything and are upset when we don’t. Sorry, folks – we’re human too.)
The first in a string of judgment calls involves whether police put out a news release. And they may or may not put one out on, say, a minor or non-injury crash, depending on the circumstances of that crash, fire or what have you — or because they are so busy moving on to the next first-responder incident they never get around to it.
But I also noted that some crimes — abuse comes to mind – are not always reported due to policies ranging from federal privacy rules to not wanting to cause added woes when it involves a family member, for example. When police are turning to the public for any other potential victims – or the case is particularly high-profile (a gymnastics coach, a teacher etc.) or severe/disturbing –again, all judgment calls that might be different from one day to the next, depending in part on how many other things are going on that day.
Oh, I should throw in here one response from my kind correspondent, who said that after serving on the grand jury, she “learned so much about the law and, sadly, about our community, living in Bend, seeing the news was the only crime I knew about, but it appears there is quite a bit more going on here than I ever could have imagined.”
A rude awakening, indeed, and bound to change your perspective on your community. Hopefully not to raise the fear level, but a real eye-opener.
I told her I was sure it was “a window into a sad, very troubling part of our community.”
And she said – in what I took as an honest misunderstanding — “I guess I just thought that if an arrest was made you were allowed to report on it. Interesting that you need permission to do that from the police department or the DA. … I am just trying to figure out how all this works.”
My journalistic senses bristled and I answered – fast — ‘No, no, I never said ALLOWED. It’s more like … well, look at the court dockets of dozens of cases a single day. We don’t ONLY report the ones police do news releases on, but those are the bigger ones – robberies, break-ins, murders etc.”
And my reply also included a long-standing line I use that can sound like a cop-out but is just the basic truth: “For every story (crime or otherwise) we get to, there are hundreds, if not thousands we don’t. There are investigative reasons police or prosecutors might not release some information before trial. And lots of other factors come into play.”
I … we should never ever assume people know all that. As for whether you/they believe it – that we don’t choose which stories to do based on who we know and are trying to hurt or curry favor with, as opposed to what’s the most interesting to any given reporter on any given day — well, we can only control what we report, not how it’s received. I often say I take 100 percent credit (or blame) for what’s on the lines I write. What people read between them often has far more to do with what views and other “baggage” they bring to a story than what we write or say.
The grand juror got what I was saying, adding that she’d always watched our news “and I feel better knowing that you all are ethical in your reporting. I hope that will continue.”
“And I also want to say that I was very impressed with the officers and the DA’s office. They are very professional and human and do a wonderful job in our community.”
And thus the exchange ended. And I was reminded that some times, folks just need a bit of explanation about how things work to overcome misconceptions, assumptions or just working in a knowledge vacuum that can lead to all sorts of negative things.
Not always, of course. Many people are dead-set in their bunker mentalities of the us vs. them, and believe everyone has an angle to make someone look good or bad, that we focus on the bad side of news to make a buck rather than it just being … the news (1,000 kids crossing a street safely isn’t news. One who doesn’t, is;-/ Or that we don’t do any(!) good news stories (oh man, stats to show otherwise apparently will never change some minds on that one, because the tragedies/problems are so … sticky and heavy, while the good news often feels like a lighter-than-air will o’ the wisp… fluttering off in the breeze.)
I hope this all came across as more of an explanation than a defense. And wasn’t an eye-rolling exercise in “oh, who doesn’t know all THAT.” Because I really believe there are many who don’t know, and won’t automatically distrust the answers because they come from the Big Bad Media in Cahoots with Big Bad Government.
I sure hope/pray so.
And your question about what we do/don’t do and why is? (And the tone of your question will no doubt play a role in whether I answer and how. Civility meets civility and all that;-)