I have always believed that a newspaper, when doing its job properly, does nothing more than show the image that would be reflected if a giant mirror was held up to the community it covers. It would show the good, the bad, the beautiful and the ugly.
In Hillsboro, it is not unusual for people to occasionally ask why we have to publish so much “bad news,” particularly all the drug busts that happen around Highland County. Do we have to put that on the front page? No, we could ignore it, or place it on inside pages. And when I look in a mirror, I could pretend that I look 25 years old.
Last week in The Times-Gazette in Hillsboro, we had front page stories on the usual drug cases and other criminal activity. There were also two stories about law enforcement officers who had been arrested on charges of domestic violence. No one likes stories like that. A couple of folks said to me that it was a shame that these people’s “dirty laundry” was aired in public.
Domestic violence is more than just dirty laundry, but yes, it is a shame. In fact, it is tragic. But when people who have been entrusted by citizens and taxpayers with weapons, ammunition and uniforms to protect and defend, and then are accused of a crime of violence, we not only have a right to report it, we have a responsibility to let the community know. Can you imagine the outcry if we had ignored it? “Why are you covering this up?” is what we would have heard.
These weren’t stories based on rumors or Facebook postings. These were cases where other law enforcement agencies considered the circumstances serious enough to arrest their brothers in uniform. Both of these men are presumed innocent until proven guilty, and we will report new information as it becomes available, however it falls. But we could not ignore the circumstances and allegations connected with these arrests.
But also last week, as is the case virtually every week, The Times-Gazette had “positive” front page stories, such as local plans for National Day of Prayer events, a feature on keeping teens safe on prom night, a look at a Greenfield man’s classic Mustang automobile, plans for the YMCA’s grand reopening, the Hee Haw show at the senior center, an update on early voting numbers, and two other stories that were drug-related, but on a more upbeat note – the formation of a new local task force to fight drugs, and a program at McClain High School teaching kids the dangers of drugs.
Every week, the staff at The Times-Gazette and our Civitas sister publications like the Wilmington News Journal, the Washington Court House Record-Herald, The News Democrat in Georgetown, the West Union People’s Defender and other newspapers go out of their way to find and report on positive and upbeat events and activities – not just from submitted press releases, which we welcome and use — but through interviews, background research and photos.
People have said to me occasionally that it is difficult to attract business and industry when the newspaper reports so often on things like drug arrests. Actually, when business and industry consider moving into a community, they don’t rely on what’s in the local newspaper. They collect data from the state on everything from health care accessibility to infrastructure to fire protection and, yes, crime statistics, including the pervasiveness of drugs.
They also consider the level of law enforcement protection. The fact that we have law enforcement agencies in our community aggressively cracking down on drug abuse is actually a positive development, and an incentive to locate here. It is, in fact, good news that drug arrests are being made regularly, as opposed to the illegal drug trade being ignored and allowed to flourish without prosecution.
We consider it part of our responsibility to seek out and report on uplifting, inspiring human interest stories, and we typically devote hundreds of inches of copy to events like fairs, festivals, fundraisers, school happenings, and other community activities.
Also important for a newspaper is to report the bad news. We spend a great deal of resources covering the courts each week, because taxpayers are paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to keep their neighborhoods safe from drug dealers, rapists and violent criminals. We think it’s important to report regularly on the fruits of that investment.
The wish on the part of some folks to ignore or downplay the bad news is understandable. Maybe if we don’t read about it in the newspaper, or we don’t put it on the front page, we can ignore it.
But ignoring it is as like ignoring the visible signs of a serious health problem – the condition will just grow worse if it is not acknowledged and treated. Ignoring or downplaying drug crimes and other criminal activity will not make our communities better places than they are. It will just let us pretend that our communities are better places than they are – and we’re good enough not to have to pretend.
We all might prefer to look in the mirror every morning and tell ourselves that there are no signs of age, wrinkles or blemishes. But there’s no sense in lying to ourselves, either in the bathroom mirror, or in the newspaper.
Gary Abernathy is a regional content director for Civitas Media. He can be reached at 937-393-3456, or on Twitter @abernathygary.