On story selection and privacy

privacy is not a crimeI'm not sure if non-journalists understand how much of a news outlet's work depends on the selection of stories. Here at GetReligion, we tend to focus on problems with the way a given story is treated. Whether it is treated at all is a bigger issue. Reader Paul Strickert sent along a sad story from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen wrote about a sweeps story for a local news station that took a tragic turn. A pastor committed suicide after a local television station planned to air an expose of his trips to adult bookstores.

Owen wrote that the possibility of harm that unnecessary reports can cause to the person under investigation -- as well as family members and communities -- needs to be considered by news outlets.

Rocky Mountain News editor John Temple wrote a note to readers explaining how his paper decided whether to run an article about the Ted Haggard story when it broke. He found out about the story from The Denver Post, which ran a small item on the second page of the local news section.

I wondered how a bombshell like that could have been buried on Page 2 of the second section. If true, what was it doing there? It should have been the banner. If not, what was the story doing in the paper?

As Rocky staffers carried through their day, they debated whether to cover the story and how to avoid pitfalls:

Even if we could talk to the escort, would we publish his claims? The cynics out there might say, come on, there was never any doubt you'd publish them. But they're wrong. We know how easy it is to make false allegations.

When Haggard resigned from the National Association of Evangelicals, the decision was made for them. Temple's account -- which discusses which headlines were considered -- is a fascinating look inside the newsroom. One editor ends up suggesting the word revelations in the headline:

Would evangelicals view the use of a word with New Testament echoes as unfair, even mean-spirited? Did it imply that the claims against Haggard were true? Many voices were heard. Staff members who openly identified as Christian spoke their minds, with some on both sides. Our religion editor was called at home. Family members were consulted, as were dictionaries.

I think it's very interesting that he considered how Christians would respond to a headline on a story about the megachurch pastor.

Temple has written about other Haggard issues on his blog, such as why he permitted an article about odds for various outcomes in the scandal. He also answered a question about a photograph of Haggard speaking with reporters while his wife and children were with him:

I will not quarrel about the public's right to know, nor will I debate the (First) Amendment as related to the media's right to do their thing. I will, however, violently object to the logic behind publishing a photo that shows two of the Haggard children. Those kids don't deserve to be a public part of the mess their father made of his life.

Reporters have every right to cover the goings-on of pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and shamen. But when they do, they should consider the ramifications of their coverage on families and reputations. That goes for all targets of stories, not just religious ones. But I think non-journalists should know that these discussions do take place in newsrooms, for better or worse.

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