How (and why) we do what we do
Last week, after our story about the Lexington police officer returning home from a third shift who crashed into a parked car on Paddock Drive, we received an email via Facebook that I found fascinating.
A gentleman wrote, “To whom it may concern, it would be much appreciated to let the insurance companies work this out, rather than publicly post something that hasn’t been fully investigated yet. Thank you.”
I’m afraid that I responded a bit tartly: “We are a newspaper, not a PR firm. We report the news as soon as we can, and we don’t work for insurance companies. Feel free to call me tomorrow at 873-4131, ext. 13. Thanks, John.”
Hey, it had been a long day.
The gentleman who emailed was responding to a photo and cutline (aka “caption”) posted on our Facebook page, and it’s possible he didn’t read the entire story. Lots of folks don’t, and that’s a shame.
Anyway, here’s another way I could have handled it: “Dear sir, the first three letters in the word ‘newspaper’ are N-E-W. If we wait for insurance companies or other businesses or government agencies to get back to us when they’re good and ready, there’ll be no N-E-Ws and no one will care and I’ll be out of a job, along with a lot of other people.”
That would have been a bit snarky, too, I guess.
While working on the Paddock Drive story, I spoke with representatives of the Lexington Police Department and Versailles Police Department, along with the man whose SUV was totaled by the cruiser. I would call that due diligence.
Let me give you an example of what can happen when reporters wait for “full investigations.” Several weeks ago, we ran a letter to the editor written by a man upset with his cable television service, which had suddenly and mysteriously begun offering him local television news from Columbus, Ohio, instead of Lexington. He explained what happened when he visited the company’s customer service office and why he’d switched providers.
I wanted to give the cable company a chance to respond – hey, dueling letters to the editor! – so I called the local office and was given the number of a PR type with the company. I called him, explained the situation, and emailed him the letter, sans customer name. He said he’d get back to me.
I’m still waiting.
Same thing happened last year with some PR-type working for the state Transportation Cabinet when I was working on a story about the Weisenberger Mill Bridge.
Should we have withheld the letter because the cable company PR man didn’t get back to us, or the Weisenberger Mill Bridge story because the Transportation flack didn’t keep his word?
I think not.
I’ve been doing this for 25 or so years, folks – radio, television and print journalism – and I’ll promise you that if we waited for “full investigations” or PR-types to get back to us before running stories, we wouldn’t have many stories to tell.
Our job is to seek and tell the truth, as quickly and accurately as possible. When we make mistakes, we own up to them, apologize, write a correction, and try not to do it again. (Sometimes, we do it again – sorry, Sarah Hays!)
Journalism has been called the first, rough draft of history. The word “first” is important.
Monday, I interviewed Al Cross, Director of UK’s Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, for a story you’ll see in next week’s “county-wide” edition of the Sun. Cross is a member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame whose students (with a bit of help from him) produce the Midway Messenger.
Al spoke of the differences between social media posts and blogs written by non-journalists and work done by people trained in, as he put it, “the discipline of verification.”
When I was a visiting professor at UK a decade ago, I preached to my students, many of whom had no intention of making a career in journalism, the virtues of attribution – letting consumers know where we got our information, so they could judge the worth of it for themselves.
You don’t have to be a genius to be a journalist – I prove that every week – but you do have to care about being fair and getting things right.
However, that doesn’t mean we must wait for “full investigations” by companies and bureaucrats who are rarely in a hurry to help inform our readers of things they may not wish to discuss.
That said, I do regret my tartness. Sermon over. See ya next week.