Newspaper should reflect community: good, bad and ugly

Posted: Friday, January 05, 2001

Now and then, we receive phone calls and written comments similar to the following letter, which was recently sent to us by an anonymous Soldotna resident.

As a rule, we don't publish anonymous letters, but the questions raised in the letter deserve answers. The letter, printed in part below, helps puts those answers into context:

I have noticed that it is your custom to print "police reports" in your newspaper ... . I wonder why you do this. Isn't there any news in this community that you can report other than having to "dig up dirt on people" who are already feeling badly enough about mistakes they have made?

Do you get some kind of morbid satisfaction out of putting someone's name, address and offense in your paper and thus destroying their reputation?

... People sometimes make poor choices and mistakes and they suffer the consequences because of this. They hardly need the added humiliation of having the entire town place them under public scrutiny, or having their life viewed through a microscope. Not only this, but your decision to put into print police reports could even cost someone their job. Do you see this as positive or constructive?

I think this type of material reflects very poorly on your newspaper and I would like to think that I'm not alone in my thinking. Why don't you use your newspaper for something a little more constructive?

I saw a friend's name in the police report section of your paper today, and my heart went out to that person. I couldn't help but think how you helped to ruin their Christmas.

The letter writer also criticized a recent story about a central peninsula doctor who had been reprimanded by the state medical board. The story reflected poorly on the doctor, wrote the letter writer, who also wondered "what did you expect to gain from this? I certainly did not think much of you or your newspaper for printing material like this."

The letter raises important questions about a newspaper's role in a community.

At our best, the Clarion hopes to be a mirror of the community, reflecting the good, the bad and the ugly on our news pages. Yes, we show the warts. We also show the incredible beauty and kindness and strength of those who live here.

Police and court reports are part of our community reflection. They are exactly what they claim to be: reports of police and court activity in our area. Nothing more, nothing less.

Because police departments and courts are public agencies, we believe it's important to report what they do. The police and court reports help the public keep a handle on the activity of these agencies. These reports are public information.

The most important function of police and court reports, however, is as a barometer of our community's health. They increase public awareness of our trouble -- and troubled -- spots. They may show a neighborhood -- or neighbor -- in crisis. The image they present might be contrary to what we want the image of our community to be.

Our hope would be that those reports would not be used as the fuel of gossip, but instead would push us out of denial of some of the things that happen in our own back yard. Domestic violence, for example, is a serious, societal problem. For too long, however, it was treated as a family matter that was better left behind closed doors. Reporting such crimes can bring about changes in the public's perception and increase public intolerance of unacceptable behavior.

Crimes like driving while intoxicated endanger the public safety. Those who are arrested for DWI before they cause an accident that maims or kills someone should thank their lucky stars. If printing the names of those arrested for DWI can serve as deterrent to others, then those reports not only have provided valuable public information, they've provided a valuable public service, maybe even saved a life.

We do not get some kind of morbid satisfaction out of printing these reports. We also are not responsible for the actions

that led to someone's name appearing in these columns. The same is true of the stories like the one in which a doctor was reprimanded.

We disagree that printing reports and stories that some may perceive as negative destroy a person's reputation; people destroy or build their own reputations by the lives they lead. Unfortunately, people appear increasingly unwilling to take responsibility for their actions. It seems like any behavior is acceptable -- or at least everyone can pretend it's acceptable -- as long as someone isn't caught. The behavior isn't as regrettable as someone's name showing up in the police or court reports, and that should be a cause for concern.

If the Clarion was filled only with those things that reflected poorly on the community, readers should be alarmed, even angry. But far more space is devoted to community and individual achievements and news readers can use to make good decisions than it is to what's wrong. It's good to reconsider what and why we do things, but all things considered, the Clarion's reflection of the community is an accurate one: the good, the bad and the ugly.

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