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Sometimes efforts to report good news are stymied

March 25, 2002|BY Terry Headlee

This week's column might be of interest for those of you who think the newspaper doesn't do enough to celebrate the athletic and academic excellence of the region's high school students and teams.

I never thought it was a fair criticism, anyway. And it's one I can disprove mathematically, given the tremendous amount of space we devote weekly to education issues, sporting events, honor roll lists, school-related feature stories and such. But that's a topic for another day.

Earlier this month we wanted to write a positive, front-page feature story recognizing North and South Hagerstown high schools for earning a spot in the Maryland state basketball tournament. The story was to appear Friday, March 8 - the day both schools would play their opening games in the tournament at College Park.

It was a huge milestone in local basketball history because there had never been a time when both North and South's high school basketball teams made the state tournament in the same year.

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The story never made the paper.

This is why:

The South High principal told us (through a secretary) that we could come to the high school and talk to students - provided the article didn't mention Domonique Richmond. Richmond, the school's star player, had been suspended from the team days earlier after being charged with two drug-related offenses while on school property.

Our story was not going to be about Richmond. The drug charges were already common knowledge to anyone following the news.

Instead, we wanted to focus a story on how students at South High were rallying around the team for its rare visit to the state tournament. It was to be a nice, positive story quoting students.

Despite several phone conversations between a school secretary, the reporter and the city editor and then eventually the principal and the city editor, we felt it was in our best interest to walk away.

It's entirely possible that none of the students interviewed would have mentioned the Richmond incident. It's also possible that some might have, but we still would have chosen not to print them if it didn't make sense to include it in the story.

The bottom line is we would not guarantee there would be no mention of Richmond in the article. The reason is simple: We don't let anyone place restrictions on what someone else can and can't say. We would rather walk away, so that's what we did.

I'm still not clear why North High balked at allowing us to enter the school to do a front page story on its basketball team. We originally had set up an 11 a.m. interview at the school. But just 10 minutes before the interview - and while our reporter was en route to the school - a secretary in the principal's office called to say the principal decided not to let us do a story.

I found this to be ironic, particularly since certain School Board members and department heads through the years have complained that the newspaper doesn't write enough positive stories about students.

I asked the city editor to lodge a complaint behind the scenes with the school system's public information office.

To make a long story short, the South High principal called back first, but reiterated his position that the article could not mention Domonique Richmond.

The North High principal's secretary called later in the day to say that we could come out and talk to some students that had been gathered up. But by then too much time had passed and the reporter and photographer were already on other assignments for the next day's paper. With the game being played the next day, the window of opportunity was gone.

The interesting twist here is that the very day we were being turned away from North and South, we ran an upbeat story on a group of Smithsburg boys who had formed a group to cheer on the girls high school basketball team. Smithsburg's girls team also made the state tournament so we traveled to the high school to talk to students.

The March 7 story quoted numerous students as well as a teacher, the school's athletic director and Principal Jeffrey Stouffer. A front page photo accompanying the story featured seven Smithsburg students.

I only point this out because this was our intent with both the North and South high schools. Students and parents from the Hagerstown schools who may be wondering why Smithsburg received front page coverage while their schools didn't now have an explanation.

So if you think we don't write enough good things that students do, it's not because we don't try.

Terry Headlee is the executive editor of The Herald Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, extension 7594, or by e-mail at terryh@herald-mail.com.

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