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A newspaper dilemma - craft v. community

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In this era of the 24-hour news cycle, “breaking news” becomes old news pretty fast but that doesn’t mean it’s forgotten. Personally, and professionally, I’m having trouble getting past the Austin American Statesman (AAS) releasing the video footage of the Uvalde school shooting before the victim’s families were allowed to relive the worse day of their lives in a private setting.

The AAS decision incensed me and brought to mind a workshop on ethics and reporting dilemmas I attended five years ago at the Texas Center for Community Journalism on the Texas Christian University campus. There were 15-20 community newspapers represented, most in the vicinity of the I-35 corridor, and at least half of the attendees had been in the newspaper business 20-plus years. I wrote a column about the class and I’m taking the liberty of quoting myself here:

“The essence of the workshop could be summed up in the admonition that journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort, aka balancing community values with craft values.

Craft values is putting the news first, getting those award winning front page photo shots, and taken to extreme it’s called sensationalism. Proponents say that a photo that captures the horror of an accident can bring attention to a problem that needs to be addressed, such as a bad intersection or speed control laws. By contrast, the reporting of that same event may be handled differently when empathy or concern for community welfare is factored in, particularly in small towns where everybody knows everybody and the impact is felt by all. But then, is it really the newspaper’s job to protect the community?”

My article continued, “The bulk of class time was devoted to analyzing specific past news events related to suicide and star athlete transgressions with emphasis on accident scene pho tos. Each story had the potential to create controversy, sway public opinion or cause hurt and pain in their communities. Editorial staff stated why these stories were handled the way they were and opposing viewpoints were heard as well.

At the end of the day, it appeared to me that small community newspapers, even with veteran staff, were less likely to publish potentially unsettling photos than were their counterparts in high traffic areas. Is it easier to embrace craft values when there is an absence of ties to that community? Or is it the subject matter that determines the tilt?”

AAS opinion column writer Manny Garcia wrote a piece with a headline which lead some readers to believe he was going to explain WHY they released the video before the families saw it but in reality, he wrote a video narrative. He did acknowledge they violated their own organization guidelines not to glorify active shooters by showing the shooter’s face, a decision he writes came about after “much discussion among our senior leaders” which included their Managing Editor for Standards. If concern about the affect on the victim’s families was factored into the newspaper’s desire for transparency, Garcia never mentioned it. The AAS did it, he wrote, because they are “aligned with the truth.”

While most subscriber comments focused on the actions of law enforcement and elected officials, one reader cast reasonable doubt about their quest for the truth with this comment: “For several years the AAS has been in a steady decline, reporting news and sports one to two days late causing subscribers to look elsewhere for their news. However, by posting this video you could be back on the road to redemption.”

Five years later, it looks to me like nothing has changed along the I-35 corridor. Being first trumps being accurate. Craft values trump community values and just plain respect and decency.

The column represents the thoughts and opinions of Connie Clements. Opinion columns are NOT the opinion of the Navasota Examiner.

Clements is a freelance reporter for the Navasota Examiner and an award-winning columnist.