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You be the editor (part 2)

The responses to the previous post helped me better understand the media consumer/media relationship. The comments reinforced an idea I've long held: Readers/listeners/viewers are smart people who know immediately that the media are irresponsible when their work hurts innocent people.

For what it's worth, here was my response to my former student:

Has the mother filed any kind of formal, on-the-record complaint with the two schools in your county? I would look for something like this, a peg to hang the story on.

But still, I'd be wondering why the best friend tipped you off, and not the mother. And I'd question things like:

• "That put him behind other students when he transferred." Sez them. I don't think they're capable of making an informed judgment.

• I don't see where the mom's past problems are any part of the story. They don't appear to have been factors in what happened or didn't happen to her son. However, they come into play in the decision-making (see my final note).

• I really think the key to this is implicit in these questions you asked: "How does airing his past laundry to my audience affect him? Does identifying a minor in the newspaper with his mother's permission -- assuming that's what she's seeking -- and mentioning his disability hurt his reputation? After all, his name and his disability will be linked together in a Google search." You are spot on with the disability/reputation angle. Our society is considerably less than enlightened when it comes to mental health, and disabilities carry a stigma-unjustified, but still ...

• Besides, the school district isn't going to give you a scrap of information. They probably won't even acknowledge the boy's name. Add to that the real possibility that the mom's judgment can/should be questioned, given the nature of her legal problems, and I think you've got a non-starter here.

But you know the story better than I do, and I know you're a good newsman, an intelligent one and an ethical one-so you might see things differently. But I don't think there's anything to be gained here.

The reporter's response echoed the reader comments on the original blog post here:

Thanks for the quick reply. This is what my editor told me after I sent you that e-mail:

"I've got a call into the school system. Let's see if between the two of us, we can put together a story about the qualifications for getting into a regular school vs. PACE. So bottom line - hang tight and let's see what I come up with from them and we'll go from there."

As for what you asked:
— She hasn't filed an on-the-record complaint that I know of.
— I have no idea about the best friend sending the first e-mail other than the two of them probably brainstorming together and her wanting to take initiative in that Type-A sort of way.
— Her past problems aren't related to her son's acceptance but directly affect her decision-making and call into question her credibility, which is why I mentioned them; it's good to see you reaffirmed that for me.

So what I think we'll end up doing is taking the idea of this—does my county have different standards for admitting mentally disabled children into regular schools than neighboring jurisdictions?—and investigate that instead of being case-specific here. You raised a lot of valid points and I agree with your judgment about it being a potential non-starter itself. If nothing else, it gives me an idea for future story about standards.

With all of us in agreement on how to handle this story, then why might some news outlets do exactly the opposite? Well, it's easy to get started on the chase before thinking it through, and the next thing you know, the pursuit of the story clouds news judgment. I've seen it happen.

Good editors can step back from the fray and put everything in proper perspective—but too often in this age of nonstop news, stories are being posted to websites with no one but the reporter seeing their contents. It's scary: post first/check accuracy later. This has led to embarrassing moments for the media when they've had to backtrack from their previously reported versions of the story.

Readers/viewers/listeners know journalists today face these demands and restraints—but readers/viewers/listeners see those factors as working conditions but not as excuses for screwing up—especially in a case like this one, where the right course seems so obvious.


( 2 comments — Leave a comment )
Sep. 26th, 2013 03:01 am (UTC)
Is the person who posted this question local enough to come to SBU? I'm thinking it would make a very interesting discussion for the 101 folks -- and maybe even combining my classes with Hyuksoo's if he wanted.
Sep. 26th, 2013 06:41 pm (UTC)
It was our own Dan Roem. I know he'd be more than happy to present to our students. Have you ever had him speak to one of your classes? He's like a hurricane. The students love him.

I'll email him and say, "Hey, next time you're in town ..."

( 2 comments — Leave a comment )

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