Newsroom decisions aren’t always easy

You absolutely never know what you’re going to encounter when you walk into a newsroom.

That’s one of the best parts of the job. Sometimes, you’ll find the wonderful stories of heroism or inspiration. Sometimes, you’ll wipe away the grime of corruption. Other times, you follow immense tragedy. It’s always a challenge and always something new.

This week – and it’s not even over yet – was one of the most challenging, but fascinating, weeks of my career as far as news decisions go.

First on a state-wide level, the corruption case against Kathleen Kane, Pennsylvania’s Attorney General, brought a bizarre example of the search for news. Kane, who hails from nearby Scranton, was scheduled for a hearing on charges she leaked grand jury information. When her twin sister came out of the elevator several members of the media followed her, thinking she was Kane. While not identical, they have similarities.

Some members of the press complained the sister was sent out as a decoy.

I found that hard to believe, partly because it so often seems Kane has trouble coordinating regular activities. In an earlier bungle, she claimed two boys were assaulted by Jerry Sandusky while then Attorney General Tom Corbett took his time collecting information on the pedophile. She had to walk back those comments the next day.

How do you cover something like that: an allegation of a decoy?

Newspapers have to make decisions like that every day. And though people often assume we’re a monolithic group with a set agenda, life isn’t that organized. I’ve worked with conservatives and liberals; people who were against legalized abortion and for it; people who think Superman is the greatest comic book hero and others who pick Batman. Other than being fans of free food, there’s not much we actually agree on.

As for the decisions we make that anger readers and sources, most of them aren’t made with malice in any way shape or form. Sometimes it’s just human error. Sometimes we just got the wrong information from people we trust. Sometimes decisions are made simply by who calls you back. Sometimes And sometimes the readers right, there is an agenda, but it’s usually not one you’d think. I worked in one paper where we constantly covered anything that had to do with history to the point where I – a history buff – thought we regularly covered things that barely eight readers cared about. I worked at another paper where we often asked college professors their opinion on every matter. Not the same professors, but always a professor. And I worked at a paper where we used Weatherbug as a source for weather news.

Weatherbug.

A lot of times, the personal bias of the staff is something you wouldn’t even consider. If no one on the paper lives in one of the outlying boroughs, it’s likely not going to know everything that’s going on.

If no one on the paper is 50 years old or older, are they going to notice senior issues? If no one on the paper is Jewish, are they going to miss Yom Kippur coverage?

But this week was something totally different.

The Kane news was barely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to decision-making.

On Monday, a colleague found out an offshoot of the KKK was distributing flyers in the region. The paper was working on the story that night as I left work. At home, I went for a walk (the undying battle of the bulge). Along my way, I saw two of the flyers. I took a picture and sent it along to a few co-workers.

On Tuesday, the newsroom delved deeper into the issue, and the usual, questions were ask-KKKed.

People didn’t want to cover the story in a way that promoted the group. But people also knew that it was news, particularly when it turned out the subject had come up at a Neighborhood Watch meeting. My colleague who helmed the story is, not only a good guy, but a very capable journalist.

The image that ran on our front page ended up sparking a ton of outrage.

More than almost any story I’ve ever been around.

I see the points people have who disagree with our cover, but not our coverage. The KKK recruiting in our area is news. And if you don’t think it is, read the comments on the story. I’d like to think that if I’d been charged with reporting the story, I could have done just as good a job as our staff did. As far as the cover goes, I think our editors made a good decision. But I also think many of the complaints have valid points. (Though I think saying we printed a recruiting flier is a stretch since the subhead starts with the word “Racists” and the KKK unironically denies being racist. And this blog isn’t run by a left-hander.)

If I were to have changed anything – and I wasn’t involved in the front page process – I would have had the headline say “The racists want you.” It’s a small tweak, but I think it would have caused a lot less ire.

While someone could argue my headline would be editorializing over just reporting the fact of the KKK recruiting, I think most rational people also admit the KKK is a vile and racist organization. But again, it’s just another example of discussions that go on in news rooms.

One aspect of the reporting I thought was handled very well was is this line based off of an interview with this group’s leader.

“Larson characterized his group as a “Christian organization” that intends to be “prepared as a militia to protect ourselves and do what we need to do to protect our families.” As evidence of recent threats, Larson points to the Iran nuclear deal, scrutiny of police shooting black suspects and what he alleges is an ISIS training camp operating in West Virginia.”

I think it was definitely right to use the phrase “Larson characterized” because the KKK regularly uses a dodge to claim it is a Christian organization. They can say that all they want, but it doesn’t make it so.

If a source tells me over the phone he can dunk a basketball, and he’s 5-foot-3 and 230 pounds, I shouldn’t report it as fact that he can rock the rim.

Most of the tenets of the KKK are diametrically opposed to everything I was taught about Christianity growing up. I know a lot of Christians who feel the same way about how unChristian – not to mention unpatriotic – it is.

Because there was so much outrage, we even did a story about our story. I don’t think I’ve ever seen that in a paper I worked at, but it’s possible I’m forgetting.

While all that was interesting, Wednesday brought tragedy and the grave questions that come along with covering horrible events.

By now, you know two young journalists were gunned down doing the jobs they loved.

Questions about how different journalists and outlets covered the story arose on social media and in newsrooms across the country.

I talked with more than a dozen colleagues, who had varying thoughts on how to cover a live shooting that viewers witnessed.

Many people questioned why the national outlets were repeatedly looping the station’s video.

One of my wiser friends wondered why the advertisements weren’t taken off of the videos online.

Then there was the video the shooter took. He put it on social media and journalists were quick to take sides on whether or not that should be shown to readers.

It culminated with the New York Daily News, which put the images from the shooter’s video of the murders on its front page. Three images arrayed like a comic strip, with the shooter aiming, firing, and the reporter flinching.

Who made the right decisions and who didn’t depends on who you ask.

I wouldn’t have run the NYDN cover. Not no way. Not no how. I thought it was crass and callous.

I also thought Megyn Kelly’s interview of one of the victim’s boyfriends and her father reached bizarre levels, though I’m not sure I blame her. She tried to make the camerman out to be a hero, but did so using speculation. Her subjects weren’t in the speculation game.

But these are the decision we have to make every day. They have consequences, intended and otherwise.

And they’re decisions we have to make in a brief amount of time, often without a lot of information, and without having expected to do so when we walked in the door that morning.

Here are some interesting takes and angles on covering these stories.

KKK
Minority leaders express outrage over KKK cover.
Front page news
Roanoke murders
Poynter looks at how outlets are reporting on the NYDN front page.

USAToday looks at the outrage over the NYDN cover.

Was it legal for police to demand journalists covering the chase have their video destroyed?

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Newsroom decisions aren’t always easy

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