Friday, December 7, 2007

When Number 1 Isn’t First

Wanted to share some thoughts on a conference I attended in late October on the First Amendment sharing experiences with like-minded folks who wonder why #1 seems to have trouble even making the grade these days. The get-together was sponsored by ASNE – the American Society of Newspaper Editors – and included representatives from major newspapers, RTNDA, the Society for Professional Journalists, the Online News Association as well as musicians, library and free speech advocates. Needless to say, we all had similar ideas.

You should know these freedoms made possible by the founder’s vision of what America should stand for: freedom of speech, a free press, freedom to worship as we please, the freedom to assemble and the freedom to petition the government. It’s the “Fantastic Five” of liberties and a model for what so many around the world still admire about the American Idea even if they don’t like us much anymore.

It’s what gives conservatives like Rush Limbaugh the same access to our ears that Al Franken had, ratings notwithstanding. The First Amendment allows the folks responsible for Akron-area print layout and newscast stacking to make choices, such as what plays first? This went through my mind the end of October with the death of a six-year old Akron boy in a local house fire and 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 stories 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 a Sunday morning while the North Carolina blaze broke out late on a 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?

The question not many want to ask, much less answer: do you base your decision on the makeup of the victim?

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 blonde innocence as a poster for the story while so many other children – not so blonde, 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 with attractive photographs, the other without the graphics. One from a middle-upper class background (hey, it’s Chagrin Falls) and the other from another side of the tracks.

Does race matter? Does economic and social class matter?

What I believe matters is these decisions are made by flesh-and-blood human beings who (hopefully) take their jobs seriously and give deep thought to the stories of life-and-death that may not hit home for all but certainly rip apart the hearts of some. Our job is to present the stories of our lives to others; to provide information and context and sometimes to stimulate debate, even if it turns inward and we are called upon to exhibit the same transparency of our decision-making process we expect from others.

The First Amendment exists to give voice to those who may be shouted down by the majority; freedom of speech provides the protection that the government won’t use all of the power given to it by the people against opinion from the people. Freedom to worship as we see fit keeps others out of a most basic and personal communication: between ourselves and our God, who or whatever He or She may be. We have a right to lawful assembly because the business of the people is that important. This is important stuff for each and every one of us. It’s why it’s First.

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