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On Not Reporting



The hardest decision for many journalists to make is whether to print something in the first place. It is also the most subjective. The decision is hardest for those who will break the news first. That's when all repercussions fall in your hands. But that wasn't the case with the pre-election news that candidate for Humboldt County Supervisor Ryan Sundberg had pleaded no contest to driving under the influence of alcohol late last year. Some anonymous tipster dropped that news item off to a number of local journalists just in time for the June election. Someone was bound to print it.

On June 10, North Coast Journal editor Hank Sims explained to his readers why he decided to withhold the news prior to the election: "There we were Friday afternoon with a choice to make ... It was my call to make, and I made the latter. I'm not sure if I was right, but I'll give you my reasoning ... I could not see how it was relevant to the question at hand ... Drunk driving, especially at the level that Sundberg was recorded at, is an inarguably heinous act. Still, I could not and cannot see how having once committed it, or having been arrested for it, might affect any vote Sundberg might be expected to take, were he elected."

I tend toward disclosure. To me, that's why journalists exist. When I worked newspaper beats, I told sources that if I couldn't use information, I didn't want to know it. It was no good for me to know information unless it would help toward the disclosure of information my readers needed or wanted.

There are reasons to withhold news. Some information should remain private -- marital affairs, for instance, unless it involves a politician who gains and maintains office preaching "family values." In that case, the affair reveals hypocrisy, which is relevant. I might withhold news that would provide readers with little information they needed to know or information that would effect no good even as its disclosure could have harmful ramifications. The ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists calls on news professionals to "minimize harm." When I was a business reporter, for example, I didn't think that the private dalliances of corporate executives were my business or that of my readers. And I would refrain from disclosing any information if I doubted its truthfulness.

In beginning reporting classes I teach students that there are five basic categories of newsworthiness: Proximity (local, local), prominence of the person (if Barack Obama sneezes it is news), importance of the subject matter, relevance to the reader and timeliness of the information. There is also a sixth category that journalists accept even though we don't like it: Something that everyone is talking about. Generally stories are newsworthy for a mix of those reasons. The Sundberg DUI carries all of them. Knowing that someone would report it, would be something everyone would be talking about. The report on the Humboldt Herald got more than 600 comments, the Times-Standard story more than 300 and Sims' explanation to readers got 47. But the biggest evidence of the relevancy of the news to readers was that Sims felt the need to explain to readers why he withheld it. If the news were not relevant there would be no need to explain the action.

What's irrelevant, I think, is where the information came from, unless that speaks to its veracity. In this case, the information was easily confirmed. Sims argued that driving drunk won't affect any decision Sundberg might make as supervisor. But he isn't supervisor yet; he is a seeker for public office and the news could affect how voters act.

And what Sims failed to mention was the news, which Thadeus Greenson reported in the Times-Standard, that a judge issued Sundberg a bench warrant for failing to appear in court to answer the DUI charges. That means that Sundberg broke a promise to the court to appear, and it seems that might speak to whether he will keep campaign promises.

The Times-Standard regularly reports the names of private citizens charged with drunk driving. Sundberg's name failed to show up in the paper apparently because of a change in computer systems at the district attorney's office. Once the Times-Standard had the news, it had to report it. Otherwise it would give Sundberg more privacy as a public office seeker than those private citizens who regularly show up in the T-S's published DUI lists. I think those who seek public office cede their right to privacy and should be held to a higher standard. He or she should be the best among us. And since legislators make laws, we should expect anyone who seeks to be a legislator to obey laws.

Journalists should respect the intelligence of their readers and give them the opportunity to decide if information is relevant. Journalists should also help readers understand the relevancy of information and to distinguish between what is important and what might be superficial. That's where perspective comes in. These days, any news organization that fails to report information cedes moderation of the conversation and perspective on it to the bloggers who will report it. You help readers understand relevancy in the way you frame it. If you run news as a small blurb you tell your readers it isn't important. If you run it as a cover story, you scream that it is important.

By failing to disclose you also risk a snowballing of non-disclosure. What happens when some tidbit comes up involving Patrick Cleary that also falls on the borderline area of readers' need to know? If the Journal breaks that news, it risks seeming biased against Cleary or partial to Sundberg. And if a publication repeatedly fails to have information other publications have, it risks looking like the last to know.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University.

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