A few months ago, I wrote that the Sparks Tribune would be taking an issues-oriented approach to coverage of this year’s elections. Our articles would focus on a topic — employment, for example, or perhaps budget cuts and raising taxes — and focus on that with the candidates filling in their ideas. This is opposed to making stories about candidates themselves, particularly when they produce giant publicity stunts such as Harry Reid’s recent spectacle in southern Nevada.
The Tribune has not really started any of this coverage yet, though I have printed a few wire stories about candidates here and there. This week, I picked up a story from the Associated Press on the endorsement of Sharron Angle for U.S. Senate by the new Tea Party movement. Besides the debate over whether or not to capitalize Tea Party (proper noun status was granted since there are now Tea Party candidates for office), I was hesitant at first to run this candidate-centered story. However, because of the movement’s new and unique status in politics (and probably because there wasn’t much other Nevada news that day) I ran it on the bottom of the front page.
Based on the above criterion of “what people want to read,” you’d think I would not hesitate to pick up any old suggestion from a caller. If someone suggests it, you know that at least one person wants to read it, which would double the Trib’s circulation. However, a lot of people have a lot of ... well ... interesting ideas for news. Some of these ideas don’t even fall into the space-filler category, but then there are those ideas that fall into a strange twilight zone where I really would like to do a story but just can’t bring myself to do it. Case in point: A reader called me last week after reading about the Sparks Police Department’s pedestrian enforcement campaign. This was a special effort by the cops to nab drivers and walkers who aren’t following the rules. The caller was upset because tax money was being spent on this seemingly insignificant issue when, in his words, there are rapes and murders being committed and not solved, etc., etc.
“Don’t you think that’s a great story?” he asked rhetorically.
“Sort of,” I replied. What this caller didn’t want to hear was that campaigns such as this are funded by special grants from state and federal agencies or sometimes private groups for a targeted reason. When police departments or cities or other government entities receive this money, it is for a specific purpose. They can’t one day say, “Hey, the walkers and drivers are fine, let’s use the money to go after gangs.” The only way the police could use the money for that is if a gang shooting takes place in the crosswalk.
So, when it came down to a decision, I agreed personally that when public money is spent on seemingly unimportant things when it could be used to, say, analyze DNA in an old murder case, that’s newsworthy.
Professionally, to take a such a position under the guise of a news story requires an enormous manipulation of facts and leading questions. There is, of course, journalism that does that very thing and sometimes to a worthy end. Some days I’d love to be finding the facts that fit my point of view and presenting them exactly how I think they should be seen (that’s why I write on the opinion page).
However, for the Tribune to take a position in its news reporting, it would have to be done with great caution because a paper risks its reputation by doing so. Risk-worthy causes are far and few between. When one comes along we’ll go for it. Otherwise, we’ll stick to straightforward city and school and budget coverage and let the readers form their own opinions.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go figure out whether tomorrow’s paper will be important or if it will sell.
Nathan Orme is the editor of the Sparks Tribune. He can be reached at email@example.com.