Local Newspapers Have to Lean Even Harder Into Tough Issues

From a post on niemanreports.org by Austin Bogues headlined “In Polarized Times, Local Papers Need to Lean Even Harder into Tough Issues”:

When I was 12, my buddy Robbie Davis and I went to see the movie “Titanic.” When my dad picked us up that evening, he asked us how we enjoyed the film. I told him about the special effects, action, and adventure in the blockbuster. Robbie shrugged and said, “It was a love story.”…

We’ve faced these split narratives in the American story before. In the 1960s, the Civil Rights movement, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy, and the Vietnam War divided the Baby Boom generation. It was either a time that led to great societal change or moral rebellion….

The split narrative continues in our debates over the symbols left from the Civil War or the significance of the years 1776 and 1619….

When it comes to these topics, specificity is your ally. Labels should be applied sparingly, judiciously, and only after great vetting.

I’m not advocating for all coverage to be happy-go-lucky and to avoid controversial topics. I’m arguing that we need to lean into them even harder. The weighty issues our society is grappling with won’t be resolved without talking about them. But I also believe there’s something that needs to factor heavily into our reporting, especially at the local outlets where our subjects are more connected to us than at the national level: grace and empathy.

While a powerful politician or celebrity might merit more scrutiny for doing something racially insensitive or having a minor scuffle with the law, we need to apply different, careful standards to cases involving kids in our communities and those who are not public figures….

When we temper our overarching journalistic mission of fearlessly seeking the truth with these values of grace and empathy, we get necessary reader buy-in. That means exercising humility in terms of what we understand about people’s intentions and making sure we make accuracy a non-negotiable priority. Hard-earned experience has shown that we can write the toughest of stories and treat people fairly, earning trust from the reader.

By making sure we’re encapsulating the totality of the debate, we can provide nuanced, equitable coverage — and avoid the pitfalls of split narratives. After all, Titanic is a love story with plenty of action, too.

Austin Bogues is a 2021 Nieman Fellow and reporter at the Asbury Park Press.

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