Facing a tough call? Talk it out
Newspapers routinely face challenging decisions. Should we run this photo? Should we accept this ad? Should we report on every monthly meeting of a local activist group?
An editors' hotline regularly raises these and many other issues. As you might expect, the opinions vary widely depending on the circumstances and an editor's perspective. Consensus is frequently reached through a thread of e-mails – and, more often than not, a healthy minority opinion is delivered, too. That shouldn't surprise. There rarely is a one-size-fits-all response.
The discussions are always enlightening, forcing everyone to rethink positions and crystallize their arguments.
The hotline underscores one of the most important steps for editors when setting policies for ethical and challenging circumstances: Have a conversation with as many people as possible; you have more resources than you might realize. For example:
Quiz your staff: Whether you have a newsroom of two or 10, get the take of other reporters. Two opinions are always better than one.
Go beyond the newsroom: Your newspaper family – your co-workers in all departments – often represents a cross-section of the community. Their feedback is as valuable as the instincts of your reporters.
Connect with the community: Most editors have their "kitchen cabinet" – key individuals in the community that you connect with on a regular basis. As time permits, seek their perspectives. Who you connect with may well vary with the specific issue at hand.
Consult your peers: Short of weighing in on an editors' hotline, take the pulse of individuals you respect in the business. They have all had their share of difficult decisions and are usually more than willing to be a sounding board.
Know your legal rights: State and federal laws dictate what information you can access, which can be a key ingredient in your decision. Many state press associations have a legal hotline; you should have the number memorized.
Setting policies for tackling the tough and challenging stories involves three steps: Develop the policy. Implement the policy. Explain the policy.
The more effort you put in the process, the more dividends you'll reap for your newspaper and your readers. Talk with staff. Talk with community members. They may not all tell you what you want to hear, or even agree with your final decision, but you'll earn their respect for seeking their opinions.
We also must be realistic. Many decisions must be made on the spur of the moment and on deadline. Editors don't always have the time or luxury to seek the feedback of others.
That said, newsrooms should regularly set aside time to brainstorm how to approach those challenging decisions that inevitably will come your way. Do you report suicides? What's your approach to coverage of sexual abuse charges and the subsequent trial? Do you identify high school athletes missing a contest due to violations of high school league or school district rules? Do you publish photos of fatal accident scenes? Do you accept ads that many readers may view as offensive? Do you publish all letters to the editor?
In the end, the editor makes the final call. There rarely is an absolute "yes" or "no" on what to do. As is frequently the case when facing ethical decisions, there often is more gray than black or white.
That's all the more reason that editors should take the final step in setting policies: Explain your decision in a column. Most important, your column should not try to convince readers that you made the "right" call. Rather, you should outline what went into the decision – assuring them that you put serious thought and time into how to approach the sensitive circumstance.
Jim Pumarlo writes, speaks and provides training on community newsroom success strategies. He is author of "Journalism Primer: A Guide to Community News Coverage," "Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Coverage" and "Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in Small-Town Newspapers." He can be reached at www.pumarlo.com and welcomes comments and questions at firstname.lastname@example.org.