Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Ready To Play Editor?

Folks responsible for Akron-area print layout and newscast stacking had a choice to make on Monday: what plays first, the death of a five-year old Akron boy in a Sunday Albrecht Avenue house fire or the death of a Chagrin Falls co-ed in a Sunday North Carolina beach house blaze that killed her and six fellow college students.

These are the editorial decisions loaded with scrutiny; a young boy or a young woman, both deaths are tragic. One involved what firefighters believe is a pan of hot oil left over from frying chicken wings racing through an Akron home without smoke detectors; the other sparked on a deck and quickly racing through the beach house where college kids were relaxing away the weekend. Both avoidable with care, our hearts tell us, both horrible accidents ending young lives full of promise.

But what’s your lead? You’re in the news business so one story has to run first. Do you make your decision based on location? If so, Akron tops North Carolina. Is your primary consideration the date of the tragedy? You’ll be splitting some hairs on this. The Akron fatal fire came in the wee hours of Sunday morning while the North Carolina blaze broke out late Sunday night. Is the story best told by pictures, and does the more spectacular scene of huge flames caught by citizen journalist aired on CNN trump the next-day photos of burned-out home shot by your weekend crew in Summit County?

One is now yesterday’s report; the other now dominates the national headlines.

The question not many want to ask, much less answer: do you base your decision on the makeup of the victim? My question doesn’t have a right answer, especially so close to the pain two families and friends are feeling right now, but it is worth asking.

The media has struggled with charges there is a caste system in place when telling stories of tragedy. The best example is the story of missing Mountain Brook, Alabama teen Natalie Holloway during a class trip in Aruba. Many, including myself, were critical of the tenor of the continuing coverage so prominently displaying the picture of blond innocence as a poster for the story while so many other children – not so blond, not so white, not from such an affluent area, weren’t worthy of the nightly talk show spotlights.

This case makes me wonder about the decision making process, too. Two families ripped by tragedy, one white and the other not-so-white. One complete with attractive photographs, the other without the graphics. One from a middle-upper class background (hey, it’s Chagrin Falls) and the other from Ellet (I’d wager most Cleveland TV producers would be hard-pressed to point out what side of Akron Ellet is on…).

Does race matter? Does economic and social class matter? Is it inappropriate to even bring the issue up for thought and discussion in our newsrooms?

My friend John Butte thinks these are just the issues we should be talking about in our newsrooms. He’s the GM of WEWS but comes to the top job from the news director route. John’s behind a committee of Cleveland and Akron news organizations (we’re the only Akron group represented at this point; the PD, all Cleveland TV and most of the Cleveland radio groups are also on the panel) looking at issues of inclusion, and whether we do a good enough job of reporting on and portraying our communities.

Diversity does matter, including when it is more than black and white issues that come to mind when we use words such as “diversity” and “inclusion”. At the very least we should be challenging ourselves in our newsrooms to give more thought to our editorial decisions other than “what’s our lead”. We should be asking “why”, too.

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