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We’ll be all right if we just keep talking

A few years ago, as a Lansing State Journal reporter, I wrote an investigative piece about the failure of our child welfare system to provide parents the tools they need to be reunited with their children who have been placed in foster care.

It’s a serious, systemic problem. I attended one court hearing at which a dad’s court-appointed attorney yelled at him in full view of the judge, the state caseworker, and the public, and no one seemed to care.

If your attorney isn’t even on your side, it’s hard to imagine anyone else wants you to be successful.

I spent weeks crisscrossing the state to interview parents, lawyers, judges, caseworkers, and advocates, and I sat for a lengthy interview with the head of Children’s Protective Services at its downtown Lansing headquarters.

When the story published, the DHHS spokesman emailed to say he and his superiors were displeased with the piece and wanted to write a guest editorial in response. They were upset I wrote thousands of words and ultimately used only one quote from the CPS chief. DHHS officials felt underrepresented.

I immediately replied and said that, of course, we would make room for an editorial, but I didn’t slight their position.

True, I’d only used one quote from the CPS chief, but I felt several of the quotes from judges, prosecutors, and others represented the DHHS position well: That all CPS cases are tough, involving people amidst the most traumatic events of their lives, and everyone is looking out for what they believe is best for the innocent kids.

I don’t know if that fully satisfied CPS, but the spokesman emailed back the next day to say the department’s leaders saw nothing inaccurate in the story and no longer felt the need to pen an editorial.

Sometimes, all you have to do is talk things through.

That truism was on full display Monday at Alpena Community College as I and Greg Awtry, a former Nebraska newspaper publisher turned Alpena News guest columnist, led a discussion of the future of democracy and journalism for an Association of Lifelong Learners program.

Some 70 people showed up — we kept having to haul in chairs from another room — for a full 90 minutes of frank discussion about the direction of our country and the media’s role in shaping that direction.

Some key takeaways:

∫ The people in the room, while appearing (based on the nature of their questions) to come from across the political spectrum, were in agreement that this country is in trouble and the media can help do something about that.

∫ Despite the diverse political makeup, everyone said they were concerned about bias in the media. That tells me one or, more likely, both of the following are true: a.) our media landscape has fractured into left-leaning media and right-leaning media, and/or b.) we as media consumers read our own biases into what we read, watch, or hear, leading us to call any news reflective of the other side “biased.”

∫ It seemed people were mostly upset with national media, especially TV journalists, and enjoyed The Alpena News. Maybe they were just being nice because I was standing in front of them and Bill Speer was in the audience.

Greg’s stated mission for the night was that we could “do what Congress can’t,” and discuss the issues civilly.

By that measure, I’d say the night was a success. I apologize to anyone who thinks I may have gotten a bit gruff at times, but I get worked up defending my fellow newspaper reporters.

I know we came up with no answers about how to fix either democracy or journalism, except, perhaps, for people to exercise their inherent powers not only at the ballot box but also at the cash register, by buying media they think do well at objectivity.

But, answers or no, the night as still a small win for democracy because we talked to each other openly and kindly and shook hands at the end of the night.

I didn’t get a chance to say it Monday night, but each and every one of you, dear readers, has a standing invitation to talk with me any time you like.

Call, email, or stop on by the newsroom and, as long as I’m not flush-faced and caffeine-fueled on a final sprint to a deadline, I’ll more than happily answer any question you have about how or why this newspaper does what it does.

I can’t promise you’ll like the decisions we make, but I promise you can always at least hear an explanation of why we do we do.

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