Community journalists talk ethics and principles
by Daniel Lundquist
Ethical situations happen in homes, classrooms, and offices of principals, police and journalists. The ethical dilemmas that small-town journalists face mold their relationships with the schools in their community.
How much should the journalist disrupt the peace of the community or threaten their own financial backing? To what degree do schools cooperate with small-town journalists and in what ways do they hold power? Each journalist has his own way of dealing with stories that involve the schools in their community and each has to think from an ethical standpoint which direction they’ll take when elucidating facts.
A journalist at The State Journal-Register in Springfield, Ill., says that in a small-town paper, a reporter has to do everything: cover the police, take photos at basketball games, and write obituaries.
Becky Glander, a journalist for the Minnesota newspaper, the Pine City Pioneer, said for most small papers, “schools are the most important thing in the community.�?
Journalists like Glander are in charge of informing the small community of what’s going on. She takes the stance that news is news and what happens, if it’s important, needs to be published even if it’s negative. She says “if things go wrong we write about them, there’s no hush hush about it.�?
Marlana Lorie, editor of the Askov American, has to ask herself: “Is it newsworthy, do people need to know, is this important?�? These important questions determine what stories she will write.
Lorie is a parent in the local school and takes the same standpoint as Glander, but said that she faces ethical challenges when it comes to writing stories on the negative aspects of the school because her child is in the school.
Jerry DeRungs, the editor for the Moose Lake Star Gazette, which serves Southern Carlton and Northern Pine counties of Minnesota says, “I have to weigh the interests of the news versus the interests of the community.�?
“It’s important to take a hard unbiased stand no matter what, and maintain that attitude permanently,�? he said.
“Everybody has an opinion,�? DeRungs said. “Gain respect, and they’ll respect you…�?
He said the community will learn to appreciate you for being a professional and doing your job consistently. Derungs has been working 30 years in the journalism profession.
Jay Corn, the editor for the Kanabec County Times, said he is currently running into an ethical dilemma that may “cut the legs out from underneath the school�? if he discloses certain information. He feels the paper knows more than they are writing but is withholding information because he’s not sure what to do about it yet.
"The function of newspapers is that by reporting the truth we will make you better," said Tim Crews, a reporter from the Sacramento Valley Mirror. Small-town journalism may have to disrupt the water and cause tension between the schools to accurately write a meaningful story.
When asked if the schools can control the journalism and affect what’s written the answers varied between journalists.
Marlana Lorie of the Askov American said the school would like to control the information in the articles written and where they are placed in the paper. She said that sometimes they demand it.
Schools have been known to purchase advertisements in local newspapers. For some papers this gives the school leverage, and in others none at all. There are situations where schools threaten to take out their advertisements if the newspaper does not “bury�? the unwanted articles somewhere behind the front page. In some instances like Lorie’s, this creates a dilemma.
For extremely small-town papers like the Askov American, funding is crucial and a pulled advertisement could be detrimental. Lorie is faced with the dilemma of posting the information she feels is truth on the front page, or moving it to a less noticeable spot in the back to please the school.
Glander on the other hand said that because the newspaper is the school’s only means of advertising in her town and the advertisements are not a main source of revenue for the publication the school does not have any leverage over what they write or where they place it in the newspaper.
Schwartz from the Aitkin Independent Age said that the school holds power by withholding information from journalists. She said that schools are not always willing to give information that might make them look bad.
“It’s hard to get accurate information�? Schwartz says. “The sheriffs are also reluctant when it comes to the schools.�?
“They don’t always give you information you need,�? she says.
She added that the school would get mad when she would ask for information. They would think that she is spreading rumors instead of trying to figure out the facts.
“We small-town journalists had a responsibility to stand up for basic principles of democracy, open government and speaking truth to power,�? says John Nichols in an article in The Capital Times.
Lisa Boumann, the editor of the Pine Journal for Cloquet, Minn., has found a technique that has allowed her to “speak truth over power�? as Nichols put it. She says that she sits in every board meeting gathering up “social capital�? so they can “keep the Superintendent in our back pocket as much as we can.�?
In the past she wrote an editorial in favor of hanging pictures on the wall in the high school which went against the principal’s views and the principal reacted by saying, “ I wanted to call you up and yell at you but I like you too much.�?
She offered him the chance to post an editorial in the newspaper.
This relationship makes it easier for Boumann to write what she feels is truth and avoid the ethical dilemma of withholding information or “burying�? a story.
Financial backing or withholding information may have negative impacts on the relationship between the journalists and the schools, but reporters state that they work toward healthy relationships and will do what they can to keep it that way if the schools play along.
“The school vowed to get info to parents and the newspaper better,�? Schwartz said, after a safety incident caused a lock out in her community.
It’s a long and grueling process for some journalists to build the relationship needed to cover stories within the school without fear, and for others it’s easier. Glander and Baumann agree they need to keep a good relationship with the school to cover the important stories that happen.