Readers take The Union to task
People become perturbed at The Union for an assortment of reasons. Sometimes it’s our fault; sometimes it’s because they disagree with us as to the role of the news media. Here are a few issues from the past week or so:
• A few readers called to protest our running a story on Friday seeking to clarify issues surrounding the assessment ballot for property owners served by the Nevada County Consolidated Fire District. They said raising some peoples’ objections would ensure the defeat of the assessment, which is being handled by mail-in ballot. One asked, “Who cares whether a ballot is secret or not?”
Actually, by the volume of phone calls we received, many people had questions about the ballot. The Union considered the story a public service. If people declined to vote due to a lack of understanding about the details of the balloting process, it could skew the results one way or the other.
One reader e-mailed us to say that the article had answered all the questions she had. That was our goal.
• Others were upset by a recent story about a business opening that said – near the bottom – that the owner had an earlier legal problem at his business site. They said it was unfair to mention something negative in a story that they felt should have been upbeat.
There was a discussion in the newsroom, as there often is in such cases, as to the relevance of the earlier legal problem. It might not have been relevant if the current business owner was not the one involved in the legal difficulty, or if the owner’s legal problem did not involve his business building.
The judgment was made, however, that it was part of the story. The connection was widely known in the community, and in fact we felt The Union would take more criticism by not mentioning it.
In the end, the owners – while they weren’t glad to see the legal problem brought up – later said that overall the story was a positive one, and their business was none the worse for it.
Incidentally, business reporter George Boardman has caught some flack because he sometimes writes about new restaurants, and his wife is a partner in the Stonehouse Restaurant in Nevada City. George, who is not involved in the restaurant’s management, always mentions the connection up front to subjects in case they would prefer another reporter cover the story. Also, in sensitive subjects such as the one mentioned above, he always kicks the final decision up to higher editors.
• The Union recently ran a followup story to a four vehicle crash on Highway 49 north of Nevada City in which a young woman and an elderly man were killed. A woman involved faces multiple charges, including vehicular manslaughter and drunken driving.
The story was about a California Highway Patrol interview with the defendant on the day of the crash, June 11, which had not been released until now. In the interview, the woman put the blame for the crash on one of the victims, and that was the “lead” of our story.
Some readers were upset that we emphasized the accused’s version of events rather than stress the charges against her. The answer is that these charges had been covered amply in earlier stories, and in fact were prominently mentioned in this story. The freshest information, in our view, is what was “news.”
However, we recognize that some feel the newspaper should take the side of those perceived by the community as being the victim. We heard the same protests when we published stories from the point of view of the driver accused of killing UPS driver Drew Reynolds, and of the driver who copped a plea after crashing and injuring two children in Alta Sierra.
Finding people guilty or not guilty is not our job; that’s up to the legal system. We are not looking to hurt families or friends by, as one person charged, “sensationalizing the story.” Our job is to try to tell what happened in as comprehensive and as fair a way as we can. To do otherwise would be a worse injustice.
• Finally, the unfortunate episode from last week’s “Heard on the street” feature, where one person’s highly inappropriate comment about President Bush got into the newspaper.
The first mistake was typing the comment into the story in the first place. It was then processed by the first editor, who mentioned it in our daily afternoon news meeting. As I recall, I said to a tableful of editors, “Please do not let that comment see the light of day.”
Everyone thought somebody else was taking care of it, and nobody did. Like a Keystone Kops comedy, the quote made it into the paper – except nobody was laughing. The Union had to apologize to a lot of people that day.
As a result, we have set out guidelines to ensure it doesn’t happen again. I hope it works.
Richard Somerville is the editor of The Union. His column appears on Saturday.
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