What we cover, what we don’t, and why

Last week, a reader called to report something happening in town that displeased her and she thought ought to be a story.

I determined pretty quickly it wasn’t something we would pursue.

I encouraged her to write a letter to the editor, but she hung up on me, instead.

I won’t get into the specifics of what the caller said, because I wasn’t able to confirm her accusations, but she essentially wanted us to do a story on what she said was a business in Alpena violating the U.S. Flag Code.

I told her we couldn’t do a story, for a couple of reasons:

The Flag Code is an unenforceable law, both because the code itself provides no mechanism for enforcement (no fines or penalties), and because the U.S. Supreme Court has deemed most of the violations one might see (American flag underwear, for example) to be protected by the First Amendment. If the police aren’t going to crack down on someone, it’s not a news reporter’s place to say they should, because that becomes an opinion piece.

The woman who called was the only person who called to complain about the alleged Flag Code violation. Every person is entitled to their concern and has a right to share those worries, but a newsroom’s resources are finite, so we typically avoid stories where one person has an issue or problem with another person or an organization. Otherwise, we’d spend all our time writing about people’s complaints. That is one of the reasons letters to the editor exist, so readers can voice their concerns themselves.

If either one of those situations were different — if the alleged violation was a provably broken law that would prompt police action, or if much of the community was in an uproar about the violation — it could become a story.

That phone call pretty well illustrates what we cover, what we don’t, and why.

Again, it’s not a journalist’s role to go after an individual or business or organization for doing something that may or may not be wrong but isn’t necessarily illegal. When police or city officials go after someone, we can report that.

The biggest reason something may go uncovered in this or any newspaper is simple mathematics. While the stories to tell and issues to uncover and wrongs to right are limitless, the time, energy and financial resources of any newsroom are not.

We must prioritize our resources.

And that means we have to focus on the biggest problems and issues that affect the most people.

In Lansing, I wrote a number of stories about problems with the state’s child welfare system: Overworked and inexperienced caseworkers frequently make the wrong call, either taking kids from or leaving them with parents they shouldn’t, or placing kids in problem foster homes. And parents who lose their kids often don’t get the help they need to overcome the problems — addiction, poverty, and mental illness are common — that caught the attention of Children’s Protective Services in the first place.

After every story on that topic was published, I would get dozens of phone calls from parents who’d had their kids taken away and felt they were wronged by the state or from aunts, uncles, grandparents and neighbors who thought the state should have removed children from their parents but didn’t.

I talked to all every caller and took notes. In most cases, it was clear the state had made the right call and the callers were just upset about it.

Occasionally, though, there was some indication the state had made the wrong call and the parents had been wronged.

But it takes a lot of work to confirm those kinds of stories. You have to pull court records and police records and interview several people to confirm as many details as you can, and it just wasn’t possible to invest that much time in every phone call.

So, instead of writing several stories about individual cases, I looked for opportunities to write big-picture, issues-driven stories that might shed light on systemic weaknesses that affect several kids and parents.

I wrote a piece about the struggles parents face to get a fair fight in court. I wrote another about how more kids are dying in foster care despite federal court oversight and hundreds of millions of dollars spent to make the system better.

Those stories — hopefully — illustrated how each of those individual parents’ stories fit into a much bigger picture, and that — hopefully — can help even more kids and families by showing them the parts of the system that may have failed them.

Those are the kinds of stories on which newspapers have to spend the most time.

And that is why a concern about a flag — however legitimate — is best left to the commentary page.

Justin A. Hinkley can be reached at 989-358-5686 or jhinkley@thealpenanews.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinHinkley.