Newspapers should report sensitive issues with consistency and 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 copycats.

A major business owner, who is good friends with the publisher, asks that his divorce not be published.

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

Community newsrooms wrestle with these challenging scenarios and many more on an everyday basis. And, in each circumstance, editors are likely vigorously lobbied to publish and withhold the information.

These scenarios underscore one of the most important steps for newspapers when reporting sensitive and ethically challenging stories, especially in small communities. The overriding point: Have a plan.

It’s impossible to anticipate every sensitive story that will cross an editor’s desk, but some principles should be followed no matter what the situation. For starters, consider these steps:

l Define the issue. Who are the stakeholders, and what do the circumstances mean to your readers?

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

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

l 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 story satisfying the needs of readers, or of a news source?

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics provides additional standards of practice to guide editors and reporters in their decisions: Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.

Deciding whether to pursue and publish a story—and establishing or following a set of guidelines—are two of the requisites when addressing sensitive issues. The final step is explaining a newspaper’s decisions to readers. Readers may not agree with your decision to publish or withhold information, but it’s important that they understand the hows and whys of your approach to a story.

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

Consistency and fairness are benchmarks that editors and reporters should apply to all reporting, and the principles are especially important when dealing with challenging circumstances.

There’s another important consideration. Newspapers often trump that they have the right to report stories. They should be equally serious about the accompanying role of responsible coverage.

As for the three scenarios posed at the beginning of this column? It is my perspective that they all should be reported.

© Jim Pumarlo 2011

Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on Community Newsroom Success Strategies. He is author of “Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage” and “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper.” He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at jim@pumarlo.com.

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