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What reporters want you to know

December 10, 2011|Linda Duffield

Each Sunday in this space, readers can find a column from a Herald-Mail employee. There is a regular rotation for these columns, with newsroom editors and department heads contributing.

Reporters do not routinely get a turn at making a point to readers, in part because tradition and ethics dictate that they keep to themselves any opinions they might hold about what they cover. That would severely limit their choices of column topics.

Yet our reporters are out on the front lines every day, covering meetings and events, conducting interviews, going to crime scenes. Their bylines are at the top of stories, and regular readers probably are familiar with many of their names.

So it seemed right to ask if they had anything they would like you to know.

Sure enough, they did. Following is a bit of what they had to say.

  • Let people know we don't write the headlines on our stories.
Headlines grab attention, and yet must get across the point of a story in just a few words. Not everyone will agree on what constitutes a good, accurate headline for every story. When a reader or someone mentioned in a story disagrees with the headline, it tends to be the reporter who takes the heat.

Editors write the headlines, sometimes with input from the reporter, but usually without that assistance.

I don't mean to suggest that our headlines are inaccurate a lot of the time. They aren't, but even so, reasonable folks don't necessarily agree on what best represents the spirit of a story.
  • When we don't accept food you offer, it's not because we want to be rude.
We appreciate the spirit in which you're offering us a piece of cake or a lunch. We know that you know we can't be bought for a meal. Still, professional standards don't allow us to take gifts, no matter how small, from news sources. We must strive to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, and that's why we must say no.
  • Sometimes I might have a personal opinion on a topic, but more often I see and understand all sides. Either way, I'm here to report what others think, not advocate my "side." And I can't talk about what I think, so please don't ask.
  • Please don't ask me to read you my story before it's published. Newspapers traditionally bar that practice because when misused it is tantamount to censorship.
I might read you a sentence to make sure I have fully understood something you've told me. But to read a full story, or even a large chunk of it, would be an ethical lapse that could cause me problems.
  • Don't assume when you see a grammatical error in a story that the reporter made it. None of us is perfect, so sometimes that is the case, not because we don't know better, but because in the rush to make deadline something slips through.
Sometimes, though, a grammatical error or other mistake occurs during the editing process. When that happens, it's not because our editors don't know their stuff. They do, but they, too, are human and on deadline and despite our best efforts, mistakes happen.
  • For the most part, we're not in a position to investigate crimes. We don't have subpoena power. We can't interrogate people. We can't force them to talk to us on the phone or to open their front door if we knock. And we have to be careful not to run afoul of libel laws. If you think a crime has been committed, your best bet is to contact the appropriate law enforcement agency.
  • There's a difference between editorial columns on the Opinion page and news stories. Reporters do not write editorials, and do not necessarily agree with them.
  • Contact a reporter if you read a story and have an opinion on it — you can find reporters' email addresses at the top of bylined stories. We'd like to hear what you have to say.
One reporter wrapped this up by pointing out that part of the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics says that journalists should: "Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct."

Above, we have told you some of the things that might be helpful to you, our readers. But we want the conversation to go both ways. We encourage you to contact us whenever you have a question or a complaint. Or if you just want to know why we do something in a certain way.

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