― Edith Wharton
Word made it to my office the other day — via one of our reporters — that a Cleveland reader wishes our newspaper would adopt an overall harder line in our approach to government reporting, education, law enforcement, spending, economic development ... you know, life in general.
Translation: Be more negative.
My response to the reader: Thank you for your input. It is genuinely respected and appreciated. But, no.
Let’s be clear about the face behind this opinion. He is not anonymous, but I’ll not name him. He can do that himself.
First, although I don’t know him personally, I am told he’s a nice enough fellow. But, it is obvious he has a vested interest and a clear agenda.
Second, he is among a brood of politically partisan — and influential — advocates whose beliefs have ruffled more than a few feathers in years past, but who is entitled to his views as much as the next guy.
Third, his heart is arguably in the right place, but I also see him as being someone who takes a little more delight than necessary in reading about the bad in life.
Every community has some bad.
Cleveland is no exception. But Cleveland also has a lot — a whole lot — of good. And that’s not me looking at life through rose-colored glasses or me speaking with an eternally optimistic tongue.
I don’t necessarily consider myself an optimist. But I am positive. Through any veil of bad I try to trace the outline of good. While some bury their frowns into what they perceive as a community filled with problems, I try to remember that perception is like opinion. Everybody’s got one.
Sure, I prefer looking for the light at the end of the tunnel. It’s not always a light that illuminates every step of the path, but it can — and it often does — show the way.
Call it a crimson outlook if you will. But I see it as reasonable hope.
I try to instill some of the same mindset in our newsroom, especially among the news reporters. They work along the front lines. That means they’re often called upon to share the trenches with ... to borrow from that old TV show, “Hee Haw” ... gloom, despair and agony.
While we can’t ignore bad news — nor should we — it doesn’t mean we have to beat our readers with it like dead fish. We can tell the story, revisit it in a followup and then keep our eyes open and our ears perked to new developments as the circumstances dictate.
We don’t have to sensationalize the negative with seismic headlines nor kidnap the reader’s attention with a teasing lead that tells only half the truth. Make no mistake. Big headlines can be good just so they’re used for the right reason. In newspaper design, size does matter.
And the vein in which news stories are written? The impact, and therefore the influence on the reader, can be like night and day, light and dark, right and wrong — all because of the angle taken by the writer and the twist the story was given.
As an editor, I pay close attention to right and wrong. I don’t try to cast judgment on the impact of a breaking news story, but I do gauge our newspaper’s reaction. Are we writing it for the right reason? Are we presenting it to our readers for the wrong? Are we sensationalizing? Are we selling out to that tired old outcry of just trying to beef up our circulation?
Obviously, every newspaper worth its salt wants to sell its product. It’s good for the advertisers. It’s good for the newsprint industry. It’s good for our readers. It’s good for the company. It’s good for the community.
But at what cost? In this line of work, credibility means everything. If you lose it, you’ve lost your livelihood. If readers believe you tell half-truths just for profit, they lose interest in what you have to say.
Someone in the media industry — TV news, as I recall — once told me, “... Bad news sells.”
Sad, but probably true.
But it doesn’t mean we have to buy into it.
On a regular basis, I urge — OK, OK, I preach — that our writers remember good news can sell as well as the bad. But to make it happen, we have to tell it.
During any given staff meeting, I can be overheard saying ... er, preaching:
n “Don’t be afraid of writing something positive.”
n “Don’t consider good news as just a piece of fluff; people actually do good things.”
n “Don’t ignore the bad, but don’t be consumed by it.”
n “Everybody has a story to tell; as the messenger, you control how it is perceived.”
n “The world is filled with problems; are we going to wallow in it or emerge from its spell?”
n “Do the story justice, whether it’s good news, bad news or lost somewhere in that vast in between.”
n “Trust in the newsman’s unwritten code, ‘We don’t make the news ... we just report it.’ But never forget this mandate. He who reports the news is just as accountable to truth as he who makes it.”
In Cleveland and Bradley County, we are no different from other communities our size across the state, throughout the nation and around the world.
We have the bad: Crime, government debt, aging infrastructure, dirty politics, traffic congestion, overcrowded schools, allegations of unfair practices in law enforcement and questionable decisions by leaders who should know better.
But we also have the good: People and nonprofits who work together to make a difference, quality education at all levels, progressive thinking with a healthy respect for the past, job opportunity, economic development, cultural diversity and churches that teach as well as preach.
We’re a newspaper. We’ll always tell the bad.
But we’re a newspaper that considers itself a part of this community. So we’ll never shy away from telling the good.
Does that make us soft? Not in my opinion.
It just makes us human.