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We're rarely the bearers of bad news

September 09, 2007|By LIZ THOMPSON

One of the great things about being the city editor at The Herald-Mail is that I never know who is on the other end of a phone call.

Of course, that also is one of the worst things about being the city editor.

We've gotten some great calls from readers who made suggestions on stories or told us about something that was going on that we had not heard about. Many of my calls lead to stories.

But as I've said in previous columns, not all of my phone calls are enjoyable. Many are frustrating - for me and for the caller.

Most of my unhappy callers seem to agree that I have no compassion.

I can't count the number of times I've been told I lack compassion because I won't assign a certain story, or I have assigned a certain story, or I won't do something else the caller wants.

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A woman called one day and wanted to know if we would not name her 29-year-old daughter who was testifying in a trial. Her reasoning was that the people that her daughter was testifying against might take revenge.

But I asked her, aren't the people that your daughter is testifying against sitting in the courtroom?

Well, yes, she said. But there might be other criminal types who would want to seek revenge.

I told her that I didn't think we were covering the trial, but if we did, we would name the daughter.

Immediately, she started with the "Oh, I see, you have no compassion," followed by the "what if it was your daughter" comments.

I've heard this literally hundreds of times. Here's my response:

We have covered the sons, daughters and spouses of Herald-Mail employees in court and in other stories and named them. In fact, we have written about employees who found themselves in less than flattering situations and named them.

One day, the publisher asked a couple of editors what we would do if he were charged with DUI. We both said, almost simultaneously, "We'd print it."

"Good," he said, and walked away.

We don't give special treatment. We do feel compassion, but we also feel a sense of responsibility to our community. Except in rare circumstances, if a topic already is a matter of public record, we are not going to be the ones to throw a veil of secrecy over it.

Another comment I hear at least once or twice a week from people who call to suggest a story goes like this: "With all the bad news in the paper, I thought it would be nice if there was good news in the paper for a change."

Yes, there is "bad news" in the paper. But most of the stories in the paper fall into the "information" category, followed by the "good news" category. Coming in last is the "bad news" category.

We know this because some government officials were complaining so regularly about the "bad news" that got into the newspaper that we literally cut every local story out of the paper for a month and placed it into one of the three categories listed above.

"Information" is just what it sounds like - What the city council or county commission did at a meeting, what class is being offered by a group, what events are planned for the week in schools and so on.

"Good news" are those many, many stories we write about local students who are doing well in sports, academics or with some civic organization, awards and banquets that are held locally, features about people and other news we refer to here as "happy news."

"Bad news" actually is the smallest category, and contains crime stories, negative reactions to some government program or poor performance by a government agency or program.

So, if you have a story idea you'd like to run by me, please give me a call. I'd be happy to talk to you. But please, please, don't give me the "good news, bad news" line.

I've heard it before.

Liz Thompson is city editor of The Herald-Mail. She can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 7682, or by e-mail at lizt@herald-mail.com.

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