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Objectivity, fairness a big part of the job

February 15, 2009|By BILL KOHLER

The phone conversation with Waynesboro reporter Jennifer Fitch went something like this:

"The school board is going to do what?"

"They are going to talk about a Gay-Straight Alliance club at the high school," Jennifer said.

Silence.

"Hello," she said.

"In Waynesboro?" I asked.

"Yes, that's the school board I cover."

"Funny, very funny," I responded.

However, we both knew the issue was no laughing matter and one we would have to take very seriously.

I grew up in Waynesboro, still live there and I knew the thought of a group of students asking to form a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school would spark a storm of debate, controversy and outrage.

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Quite honestly, I think a similar scenario would have unfolded in any town in the Tri-State area and nearly every community in America.

In the business, we call this a story that has legs. It's not a one-and-done kind of thing. It has plenty of angles to explore, opinions to hear and experiences to share.

Part of an editor's job with any news story is to ensure objectivity and fairness. You know, both sides of the story. Jennifer and I planned out a couple of stories, plotted them on the calendar and she went to work.

We covered the first school board meeting on the night of President Obama's inauguration with story and video. We were careful to give equal time to both sides.

We followed that up with a story talking to the students in the Gay-Straight Alliance at Shippensburg (Pa.) Area Senior High School and the group's adviser. An accompanying story offered a view from a local psychologist.

On Feb. 8, we published a story in which we talked to a number of gay adults from the Hagerstown area who shared their experiences in high school. We did this to give readers an insight into what being a gay high school student was like.

The coverage came to a head Tuesday night. Twenty-one speakers from a crowd of about 100 spoke to the Waynesboro School Board. Many spoke very passionately about their concerns, and most had done their homework before the meeting.

As we do with any story of this nature, the reporter and editor make sure we have a balance of both sides of the subject. That means if we have five for, we have five against. Plain and simple.

Another aspect that we have added to our news coverage the past several years is video. Many of our news reporters shoot, edit and transmit their own video that is run on our Web site at www.herald-mail.com.

At the first school board meeting, Jennifer pulled off a trifecta -- writing notes, taking pictures and shooting video. She did a solid job.

Tuesday night, I gave her a break and assigned another reporter, Kate Alexander, to shoot the video. I learned long ago that with stories of this magnitude, it's imperative that you err on the side of more staff -- when available of course.

This allowed Jennifer to focus on writing two stories for the newspaper and the Web site while Kate funneled her efforts into a quality video presentation of the meeting.

And like the story, we make sure both sides are represented fairly in the video.

The final aspect of the coverage of our bigger stories is the follow-up discussion. An old editor of mine used to rag on me about this, so I tend to overanalyze whether we've beaten a story to death or not.

In this case, Jennifer had done her job exactly the way she should have. She covered the meetings, wrote several quality follow-up stories and put both sides of a controversial story out there for the public to ponder and debate.

Bill Kohler is Tri-State editor of The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 1-800-626-6397, ext. 2023, or by e-mail at billk@herald-mail.com.

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