Stuck in the Middle

I was on the fringe of a discussion on one of the hot-button topics when the guy dominating the gathering suddenly asked me, "Are you a conservative or a liberal?" I explained that I study and consider different sides of an issue before drawing a conclusion. He shot back, "So, you're a liberal!"

Eric Jackson
Some people believe being an informed and objective reporter is a character flaw. Eric Jackson says it best with his piece, “Stuck in the Middle” in his blog An Old Cop’s Place. Eric is interesting on many levels; a former chief of police with three decades of law enforcement, a public speaker, former college professor and dedicated church volunteer, not to mention one of the most pleasant people I have had the opportunity to speak with.

Read “Stuck in the Middle” by Eric Jackson HERE.


The hardest story

I have often been asked, “What is the hardest story you have done?”

That is a tougher question than it appears because there are different kinds of hard stories. When it comes to tedious reporting and government leaders trying keep me from digging up their filth, I have one at the top of my list that I will share in a future post. Today, I expound on another kind of hard story and how I handled them when they occur.

When one of the community’s students or children are critically hurt, fall gravely ill or die, these are among the hardest stories I have done. Unlike metropolitan reporters, as a community photojournalist I become endearingly attached to the community I serve. I treat these stories differently than other news stories.

One example is an incident involving two middle school friends. While at a lake, one became endangered in the water and the other went to save his friend. The first survived but the friend that went to the rescue drowned. I got the report and a quote from the sheriff’s department and after much thought phoned the parents of the surviving boy. I explained I already had enough information for the story but wanted to give them an opportunity to add their thoughts if they wanted. They appreciated the chance to tell the community how thankful they were to “our hero” and how saddened they were for the other family’s loss.

When I understood the two families were close, I asked the mother if she would phone her friend for me and ask if they wanted to add their thoughts as well. It was uncomfortable for me, but the result was an emotional and fruitful meeting at one of the homes with both families and the surviving boy. During the meeting I also asked if it were OK to take pictures. They agreed and I used a pocket camera to photograph the parents hugging at the close of the meeting. It could have been just a news report but it became an inspirational story, although the hardest kind to do.

For suicides, I do not lead off the story with that fact. For students, I report the untimely death, highlight the student’s activities and accomplishments, include a positive quote from a teacher or administrator and end with, “The Sheriff’s department reports that (name) took his/her life at (location).” I don’t report how it was done or anything about a note. I was once criticized by another editor for not using a paper-selling suicide headline, but that’s just too bad because I don't sell drama and I think about the families when I cover these things.

It was the first student suicide for a particular high school and the district superintendent would not return my phone calls and instructed the school’s public information officer, administrators and teachers not to speak with any media, which hurt because I was the local paper and the others were metropolitan media. All I wanted was “He was very friendly and he will be missed by all,” but I had nothing. In desperation, I pleaded my case with the public information officer, telling him “I have to print the story. There might as well be something positive for the kid’s last time in the paper.” I begged the PIO to talk to the superintendent and explain my intentions and please get any statement for me. The superintendent personally called me and gave me what I wanted. I was pleased to later receive an email of thanks from the super for my handling of the story and it opened doors of trust for me with the school district.

Reporting about adults seem easier for me, but I have done too many stories like this about kids over the years – two student suicides, four traffic deaths, one drug overdose death, one drowning and three terminal illnesses. However, I am going to stop here and tell you my teaching point is leave the family and fellow students alone and be delicate, yet tactful, at gathering quotes from appropriate sources. Your readers won’t miss the drama. Above all, handle the story respectfully.

Sorry for the bummer post this week, but this is an unfortunate subject that journalists have to deal with. I hope it helps.


AP Stylebook: More stupid rules

More stupid things from the AP Stylebook

Before I take more shots at the Associated Press book of style referenced by journalist around the world, you must first read my earlier post "AP Style" about how the book is an important tool here you have not already. I throw a few stones at the book then as well.

Go ahead. Read the earlier post and come back…

AP Stylebook wants you to add the word “diploma” after "GED." Such as, “She earned her GED diploma” and not simply "She earned her GED." Oh really? Since GED stands for General Equivalency Diploma, you would in fact be saying “She earned her General Equivalency Diploma diploma,” and that would be redundantly redundant.

In dates where A.D. or B.C. are needed, AP Stylebook wants you to put “A.D.” before the number but put “B.C.” after the number. So it would be "Carriages and coaches were first used around AD 750 but in 400 BC people just walked or rode the family yak." This rule must be based on the same logic we use our left hand to open doors on Tuesdays and Thursdays but our right hand Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The AP Stylebook wants you to capitalize the word "adrenaline" for no particular reason. The adrenaline produced in your body. No fooling.
AP Style book: Buy one, read it, use it, but don’t be a slave to it. If you alter from it, have a darned good reason for doing so, keep your alteration consistent and make the rest of the office do so as well so readers never see variations in your publication.


Separation of church and state

Today, there is another story concerning separation of church and state in the news. City council members of a small New York town are considering banning prayer before their public meetings saying it violates separation of church and state. Many city councils, government boards, schools and chambers of commerce have considered the same matter, but the New York case is going to court.

It is approaching that time of year where my county courthouse erects a lighted Nativity scene on the east side of the courthouse square and self proclaimed atheists write letters to the editor in the newspapers saying it violates the constitution and separation of church and state.

So, what is this "separation of church and state" that keeps coming up? One side interprets the First Amendment as meaning there should be no religion in state, public and government. Another side believes separation of church and state is for government to ban religion in public and government places.

Both sides are wrong.

Here it is in the U.S. Constitution:

Amendment I
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

Once again: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…”

The Constitution states laws should not be based on a religion or favor a religion. Laws can be created for good, wholesome, moral, just and beneficial reasons, but not religious interpretation or to favor a particular religion.  Furthermore, Congress should not pass laws to hinder the free practice of religion. That's it.

Sound simple? Not so. With the most controversial legal battles right now - abortion and gay marriage - argument from some of our government leaders is based on religious interpretation.

Do you still think laws should be based on religion? Consider countries whose religious laws are the laws of the country. Think about what human rights are violated in the execution of these laws and you may begin to think our founding fathers knew what they were doing when they wrote Amendment I in the Constitution.

Amendment One came into spotlight in my area school district when morning announcements that once began with a reading from the Bible were reduced to a student reading a generic prayer and further reduced to a moment of silent prayer. When that moment of silent prayer was challenged, some parents protested sternly in school board meetings and the moment of silence stayed. My thought at the time was if you want to see parents get really angry, wait till a student faces east and kneels on a prayer rug during the silent prayer and the poop would really hit the fan!

The First Amendment has nothing to do with banning prayer. Neither does it give leaders the right to use religion to justify laws.

PS. Because the holidays are upon us I want to mention a 1984 Supreme Court decision, Lynch v Donnelly, provides for publicly sponsored holiday religious displays on public and government property as long as it contains secular holiday symbols along with the nativity scene.
Coming soon: Another part of the First Amendment, freedom of the press, and why what some journalists believe about it is false. Hint: My Ninja Journalism master, teacher Millie Thompson, used to say, "What do the Tooth Fairy, Easter Bunny and Freedom of the Press have in common? Anybody? Anybody?"

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