Covering the news requires responsibility

The process by which journalists uncover and report the news is a mystery to many news consumers. Journalistic decisions are made outside of public view, and the stories that ultimately appear in print are the products of dozens of factors that the public rarely gets a chance to fully consider.
The crisis of credibility facing the news media today could be dramatically lessened if the public were allowed to witness the news process and to understand all of the trivial and profound forces that affect it.
Tuesday’s page-three story describing the Spring Jam event at Coffman Union, which honored the children of Camp Heartland, created a great deal of controversy among the staff and provided an ideal opportunity to illustrate how these news decisions often get made.
Camp Heartland is a camp for kids with HIV and AIDS, and it is the main beneficiary of the greek system’s Spring Jam fund raising. Children and counselors from the camp were on campus for a program designed to allow the greek community to see firsthand the impact of their fund-raising efforts.
This type of story would normally focus on the poignant testimonials of children with HIV and on the good that was being accomplished with the money the fraternities and sororities had raised. It turned out to be a story that was almost as much about the sideshow of the audience’s behavior as it was about the guests of honor. But there was good reason for this.
Instead of highlighting the generosity of greek students or the gratitude of camp representatives, the story’s lead focused on the frenzied scene inside the auditorium. And instead of an image of one of the presenters, the accompanying photo was of a costumed fraternity member, standing on his chair and waving a sword as he tried to excite the audience prior to the presentation.
If the story and photo were not what some expected, it was because the event was not what the reporter and photographer expected when they left to cover it.
Staff Reporter Nichol Nelson explained that when she and Staff Photographer Sean McCoy arrived at Great Hall on Monday night, they encountered a scene that seemed completely inconsistent with purpose of the program. The auditorium was packed with greeks, many dressed in costumes, who were shouting, chanting and singing songs. Even after the children from Camp Heartland arrived, the party atmosphere — complete with air horns and bull horns — continued as audience members sought to earn extra “spirit points” for their fraternity or sorority.
“Sean and I got uncomfortable because the kids had filed in and were waiting while people were screaming,” Nelson said, adding that the noise level was so loud she could not hear the people to whom she was speaking. “I thought is was totally inappropriate. I was taken aback.”
McCoy agreed that the environment was awkward. “It felt really disrespectful to me at first.”
Nelson said the noise and the air horns continued through the start of the program and the presenters struggled to keep people quiet enough to go on. The crowd settled down when the camp representatives started speaking, but the presenters still had to speak over the voices of talking audience members.
Nelson said that what may have begun as a “standard speech story” had changed for her. It was no longer just about the presentation. There was a story within the story that had to at least be acknowledged.
After returning to the Daily office, Nelson began debating with Associate Editor Andrew Donohue about how to frame the story. What was the news? Was it that the greeks had raised thousands of dollars for a good cause, or was it that they acted in a way that cheapened the whole event?
Nelson wanted to emphasize the latter, but Donohue argued that the focus should remain on the purpose of the event and the speakers. After a lengthy argument, the two agreed to what Nelson called a “big-time” compromise. The story and the photo addressed the audience’s behavior, but presented it more as harmless enthusiasm than callous disruption.
Donohue said he did not do much to change Nelson’s draft of the story. “I pulled a quote or two out of there, but that was it.” Donohue added that he trusted Nelson’s judgment in deciding how to write the story. “I just wanted to make sure we didn’t lose sight of the reason the story was being covered in the first place.”
Nelson said the published story was “bland.” The story she wanted to write would have incorporated quotes from people in the audience and from some participants who Nelson believes were bothered by the “pep rally” atmosphere. Because the story occurred so late, however, she did not have time to do additional interviews and get people’s reactions.
The looming deadline also forced some tough decisions by McCoy and his editor, Amirali Raissnia, about which photo to run with the story. McCoy said he and Raissnia agonized for nearly an hour over the decision, wavering between the photo that eventually appeared and some more generic but less engaging photos of speakers and seated audience members.
McCoy said it was a “very, very tough decision.” He and Raissnia wanted to run two different photos, presenting both sides of what McCoy described as an event “of real serious contrast.” But because the event occurred so close to deadline, they had a small hole to fill and it could not fit two photos.
Both McCoy and Raissnia were satisfied with their ultimate choice, saying it accurately represented the scene prior to the presentation, and it was by far the most interesting photo.
The product of all this deliberation was a story that did a respectable job of capturing the conflicting aspects of this event. Given all of the pressures and the differences of opinion among staff members, the story was at least an adequate accommodation. The story Nelson wanted to tell would have been more interesting, but there simply wasn’t time. The most important thing was that she recognized the “story within the story” in the first place.
Whatever the limitations of the story, however, the process through which decisions about it were made was more than adequate. Ethical decisions in journalism are often made hastily and solitarily, which is when breakdowns occur. This was not one of those cases. Whatever one might think of the end product, the process was unimpeachable.
The reporters, editors and photographers involved spent more than an hour debating how to play the story and how best to balance the need to present a complete picture against the need to avoid vilifying or misrepresenting anyone.
Too often journalists get locked into routines in which issues of fairness and balance are either forgotten or dwarfed by other pressures. It was encouraging to see that in this case, under deadline pressure, the staff took its responsibility seriously. Whatever our opinions of this story and photo, we would be lucky if the same attention were given to every story.
Eric Ugland’s column usually appears on alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments on his column or the Daily to [email protected]