Have to Speak Up ...
(Editor's Note: My letter published below was submitted to the Wave newspaper in response to a May 21 column by Wave editor Angela Andriola that stated that newspapers have a higher standard than other news media. Andriola left a message on my answering machine on Monday, June 2, informing me that the Wave would not publish the letter, so we are publishing it here. In the interest of full disclosure, I was a staff reporter at the Wave for six years, from 1996 to 2002.)
When you're in this business, you have to develop a somewhat thick skin.
After all, it's a well-known phenomenon that folks will "blame the messenger" when bad things happen. Or when things don't happen the way someone wants them to happen.
I've been yelled at in public by a town official who didn't understand why I didn't drive 80 miles to take a picture of her getting a plaque from a business. I've been blamed (by that same person, coincidentally) for inflammatory headlines that were written by someone in another office in another state. I've been glared at, finger-wagged at, hung up on. I've had a windshield broken out of my car a day after my husband and I broke a story about police corruption in a small Pennysylvania town.
So I've learned that there are some things that you just have to let go. It's like your mother always says: "Pick your battles."
But there are times when a person just has to speak up. Like when a fellow journalist uses her podium -- the editorial page of her paper -- to try to discredit other media. To be precise, when Wave editor Angela Andriola purported to tell her readers about all the virtues of her paper -- and parent company Gannett Newspapers -- she chose, along the way, to make statements about Web sites being run "by anyone with a computer and a modem."
When I wrote a letter to the Wave in response to her column, Andriola informed me she wouldn't run it. She said it was "nothing more than an ad" for Sussex County Online. Yet the week before, the paper ran a letter from Gulfstream principal Mark Zduriencik extolling the virtues of his development company and dispelling what he felt were misconceptions put forth by another letter writer a week earlier. Ah, that must be the difference -- Zduriencik was taking issue with a regular person, not the Wave.
Andriola said in a subsequent e-mail to me that she didn't mention any particular business in her May 21 column. Quite true. Instead, she took a swipe at an entire industry. Does that mean that no members of that industry are allowed to respond if they refer to themselves -- and their qualifications -- in the response?
Further, the claims Andriola made -- that newspapers are somehow bound by a higher authority than other media -- are the same ones she has made to me and others in the past year. She has made comments about how Web-based reporters don't have the same restrictions as newspaper reporters, by way of defending her paper's coverage of a local issue over the coverage offered by other media, including Sussex County Online.
All that said, here is the letter that you won't read in the Wave this week. Funny, I thought the Wave's office was in Bethany Beach, not Fenwick Island. I guess the muzzle mentality is moving north.
I read with interest your "Making Waves" column of May 21, 2003.
As the editor of an online news service, I wanted to clear up a few untruths in your piece.
First, there are no laws applying to newspapers that don't apply to Web sites. We are all bound to laws regarding libel.
Because some Web sites provide open forums for public discussion and debate, they often set up their own rules for those forums.
At Sussex County Online, we felt it necessary to set up a few rules for our forums. They are as follows:
1. No vulgar or obscene language.
2. No posts on someone's personal life rather than their public performance.
3. We may or may not allow anonymous posts for specific accusations of wrong-doing. If we know the post is true, we will let it stand. If we don't know if it's true or not, we will remove it and ask for proof before re-posting it.
We came up with these rules without years of committee meetings and consultations with overpaid corporate attorneys; they just seemed to make sense based on our combined 40-plus years of experience in the news business. Some users balked at even those restrictions, calling them "unconstitutional" and accusing us of "censorship." But we feel our rules make those who post on the forums take some responsibility for their comments. If they don't care to do that, their posts are removed.
Just as there is a difference between the copy on your editorial page and your news pages (one being opinion-based, the other fact-based), the content of our forums does not impinge upon the content of our news areas. Even my eight-year-old daughter Kelsey understands the difference between fact and opinion."What you think is not a proven fact," is how she puts it.
You state in your column that "you can be sure that what you read in The Wave is true and accurate news reporting." Yet in the next sentence, you add "we ... like all humans, will sometimes make mistakes."
Indeed, all the ethics principles in the world don't prevent overworked and underpaid reporters from making mistakes. And they don't prevent "one bad apple" like the New York Times' Jayson Blair from taking such liberties with the truth that Blair's employer ran a 14,000-word article detailing his deceptive practices. That's one heck of a correction.
I appreciate your frustration with the limitations of working for a newspaper versus a medium such as the Web -- where there are no inch counts, there is no need to edit stories for space, and no need to wait a week to print a major story. But to say a newspaper is held to a higher standard and therefore can't run the same types of stories is misleading.
Each news medium has its own style, its own benefits. It's difficult even for Web-based reporters to compete with the immediacy of live television for certain stories. Radio stations often air public discussions of current events by anonymous callers who say whatever they please. That's their right, and it's up to the radio station to monitor that.
To hold the Wave and its parent company up as a bastion of responsible journalism is one thing. To claim it is somehow held to a higher standard than other mediums is quite another. It is simply not true.
Sussex County Online Copyright © 1999-2002 Sussex County Online