Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training

Reporting sensitive issues with consistency, fairness

By Jim Pumarlo

A resident has failed to comply with the law that requires him to register as a sex offender. The crime occurred seven years ago, and he is married to the county’s director of child protection services.

A bomb threat is called in to a school, and authorities issue a press release; nothing was found. The police chief later asks the newspaper to kill the story because he’s worried about copy cats.

A major business owner, who is good friends with the publisher, asks that his divorce not be published.

You be the editor. Would you report these cases? And, if so, in how much detail?

The news staffs of the Rivertown Newspaper Group – the Republican Eagle and nine surrounding weeklies in Minnesota and Wisconsin – wrestled with these scenarios and many more Wednesday. Leading the discussion was David Gordon, a retired professor from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire who specializes in journalism ethics.

Setting guidelines

The discussion represented one of the important steps for newspapers when reporting sensitive and ethically challenging stories, especially in small communities. Gordon’s point: Have a plan.

It’s impossible to anticipate every sensitive story or circumstance that will cross an editor’s desk, but there are some principles to follow no matter what the situation. Gordon offered four steps: 

  • * Define the issue.

  • * Identify the values. For example, what has precedence – getting the story, or respecting an individual’s privacy?

  • * Consult relevant standards. Are there ethical principles that offer guidance in the decision-making?

  • * Assess your loyalties. To whom or what does the paper owe its major loyalties in pursuing a story? Is it a business decision? Is the article satisfying the needs of readers, or of a news source?

Explaining decisions

Deciding whether to publish an article – and establishing or following a set of guidelines – are just two necessary steps when addressing sensitive issues. The final step is explaining a newspaper’s decisions to readers. This column frequently serves that role for the R-E – outlining the hows and whys of our approach to a story.

That’s important to do. Readers may not agree with every decision regarding what we publish, but they’ll likely be more accepting – or at least more understanding – if they know that newsrooms have a deliberative process and guidelines for addressing sensitive subjects.

Consistency and fairness are benchmarks we apply to all our reporting, and they are especially important when dealing with sensitive circumstances.

There’s another important consideration. Newspapers often trump that they have the right to report stories. At the R-E, we also are serious about the accompanying role of responsible coverage.

As for the three scenarios posed at the beginning of this column? They all would be reported in the R-E.

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