“Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.” Thomas Jefferson
Working as a writer for a community newspaper, reporters are often placed in a somewhat untenable position — having to write about unpleasant things involving people you both know and like.
That is what happened to me last week when I felt obligated to pen a story suggesting that the moves made by the Surry County Board of Commissioners could violate the open meeting laws of the state of North Carolina.
In tackling the issue, I knew that the recent death of a beloved community leader was the impetus for the move, and emotions were running high.
Even so, my responsibility is not to our elected officials, or advertisers, or a political party, rather to the citizens of this county.
It is a role that can make critical differences in people’s lives if done properly, so I felt like I had to write the story.
Let me explain:
When I agreed to take over the coverage of county government, this paper’s relationship with the board wasn’t always one of rainbows and cotton candy. Let’s just leave it at that.
That being the case, one of the first things I did was set up a meeting to simply chat with some of the powers-that-be. It was just a chance for them to get to know me and vice-versa.
At that meeting, I told them that while I pride myself on being somewhat profane, quite sarcastic, undeniably funny and substantially irreverent — I take my job very, very seriously.
And while I can’t quote verbatim what was said, the gist of the conversation was: “I promise you that I will do everything in my power to be honest, fair and accurate, but you have to realize that I have a job to do and when there’s a question, I’m going to write about it.”
Nodding their heads, the powers-that-be said they understood and that’s all they could ask for.
Which is why I hated writing that story, but felt that it needed to be written in order to inform the public. It is a responsibility I take deadly serious, even as I sit here in tennis shoes and jeans eating a lollipop.
The way I see it, this newspaper’s role in the community is simple:
While there are literally hundreds of television stations or websites county residents can view that will tell them all about the trouble in Syria, or what’s going on at the Olympics, there’s only one place the public can turn to find out about what’s going on in this — their — community.
I simply don’t have the words to convey how strongly I feel about this topic, so I’m going to let Jan Larson, editor of the Bowling Green, Ohio, Sentinel-Tribune, say it for me.
These remarks were delivered by Larson during a panel discussion at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications conference in 2006:
“We are the only media in our area to routinely cover meetings that may be mundane — or may hold some unexpected action that could alert residents to a Walmart Superstore eyeing their neighborhood, or to raw sewage being pumped into the ditch that runs past their homes.
“We are frequently the only accessible source of information about issues such as an upcoming school levy or zoning change for our readers. While TV news may cover the plight of a school district on the verge of financial collapse, they don’t have the time to give their audience details on exactly how they will be affected if the levy passes or if it fails. By dedicating ample space to local controversies, we are able to go beyond the extremists on the fringes of each issue, but also seek out people in the middle ground — understanding that most stories have more than two sides.
“We realize it’s not only important to listen to the loudest voices, but also those standing by quietly.”
Which brings me back to last week’s story. I wrote it not for the handful of people involved, rather for the thousands of readers relying on this newspaper for information.
And just to reiterate, writing that article brought me no pleasure. I’ve been there, done that and learned my lesson.
I’ve seen the trauma that my 10 little fingers can cause when used irresponsibly.
I’ve seen people’s reputations and relationships ruined because of what I’ve written.
I’ve created the kind of uproar that ends up with people getting fired, or kicked off elected boards by voters.
I’ve written stories so revealing that the people involved ended up selling their home and leaving the community because they felt they could no longer live there.
I’ve been attacked for taking photos of moments of monumental tragedy, the kind of tragedy that resulted in several sleepless nights with it playing over and over in my mind.
But I have a job to do, and in this case I felt like that story needed to be told.
And I will do it again when necessary. Every single time.
Keith Strange is a staff reporter for The Mount Airy News. He can be reached at email@example.com or 719-1929.