Good to Hear: The message vs. the messenger

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Recently our newspaper received a letter to the editor from a Marysville High School student.
The correspondence got me thinking about a letter I wrote to my local paper as a teen. I was a junior at Tussey Mountain High School in western Pennsylvania. The local paper, a weekly publication called the Broad Top Bulletin, covered school board meetings. At one of the meetings, a resident addressed the board about the ills of students, calling them lazy. He said many of them were criminals. He said the school wasn’t doing enough to keep the students off the street and to protect the community.
As was its duty, the newspaper covered the meeting and included the man’s comments.
When I read the story, I was angry. This man’s comments reflected on me — a straight A student in college prep courses, an athlete, involved in my church and community — and on my friends.
I wrote a letter to the editor informing him that his story was slanted and irresponsible. I said it was unresearched and unfair.
My classmates and teachers cheered me on as I wrote and delivered the letter. It wasn’t until my father read the letter that I got a proper perspective. He pointed out that the newspaper had done exactly what it is supposed to do, that the newspaper had delivered an accurate and unbiased report of the events of the meeting.
He explained that the comments may have been uniformed and unfair, but the reporting was responsible.
He said my frustration was misguided, that I had taken my anger about the man’s comments and turned it against the newspaper, that I had blamed the messenger for the message.
I was blessed that I have a father who was wise enough to show me the difference and taught me to appreciate the role of a newspaper in society.
It is a lesson I wish others got.
On a near weekly basis I get phone calls or comments about stories I write, saying my story was slanted or biased. They say I should not have included someone’s comments, that I should have called to get a subject’s response or simply that I didn’t get all the facts. In almost every case however, in unpacking their anger, we learn they are not upset with the way something was covered, but that it was covered at all. They are not saying my story is inaccurate, they just don’t like the truth of the events.
In a world where it is easy to cry “Fake News” it is important to understand the role of a newspaper. The role is not to create or edit the comments of a source — whether that source is a coach, a resident at a meeting, a council member or even a student. The newspaper’s job is to mirror what the world looks like. Not to create the image the viewer wants, but a reflection of what it sees.
-Mac Cordell is a reporter for the Journal-Tribune.



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