Oftentimes when describing our job duties, those in my field will say we are responsible for "sharing people's stories." While that can often seem apt, I am always on the hunt for better words.
After all, my job is one of those weird ones where how we describe our duties may have an impact on how we are received.
Sharing people's stories suggests far too often that what we write is in the control of our sources, complete with skewed details and so forth. Quite often, my coworkers and I are challenged with the duty of ensuring that our sources don't have the power to skew facts and that we, too, don't twist things.
I think that's why I tell people that my job is "to serve as a witness." This is less challenging for light news stories like profiles or feel-good pieces. It is far more challenging in other scenarios.
Anything that's public can be a challenge, including light-hearted public events and especially government meetings. At these events, there is so much to witness, and only so much space in newsprint for a story. The challenge then, is to determine the importance, impact or overall value of what we witness, and to measure that not by our own understandings, but by a sort of metric determined by our readership.
What will affect them most? What would they want to know most? What would they benefit most from knowing? As a witness to these events, we are sort of their proxy.
I attend city council meetings all the time where someone will make an off-handed statement, followed by, "Don't write that." Or lately at an event someone might say, "Don't take my photograph; I'm not wearing a mask."
In fact, there's a good chance I won't write what they said or I won't publish any photographs of them - but that's because there are more important things going on. Measured by the metrics mentioned above, those comments or photos people don't want shared aren't always important, though Nisswa in recent times is learning that sometimes they are.
And that's what people should learn from.
I've gotten at least four people angry at me for writing what they spoke about during city council meetings, and I'm willing to do so with those off-handed remarks too, as long as they are important to the story. I've wound up on people's bad side for reporting on 40-minute long discussions on drunk driving, million dollar financial penalties for possibly ignoring certain violations, and police coverage.
I recently told people at an area council meeting, "If you don't want it in the paper, don't say it here." That's because I am not just one guy sitting in the council chambers surrounded exclusively by city employees, and I'm not there to represent your interests.
I am a proxy for approximately 2,500 people who get our weekly newspaper. Council members and those who attend meetings should act like the entire community is present, because anyone in the community has a right to be there, and could be present. And that's true whether I'm there or not. If you don't want them to know you said it, don't say it.
Maybe I am being biased with this point, but it's somewhat like my view of lying. I am not good at it, so I avoid it. I figure if I'm doing something I will lie about later, I must know I shouldn't be doing it. In turn, avoiding doing something I'd have to lie about later makes me do fewer things I know I shouldn't be doing. When I get caught doing those things, I find it is more and more difficult to lie about them, so I have to be prepared to accept the consequences. This forces me to accept consequences of my actions and only do things that I think are worth doing, and worth admitting to.
If you need to tell me not to share your words or actions with our readership, then you know you're doing something you aren't supposed to be doing. Either accept the possibility that I might share that you said something distasteful at a council meeting, or stop saying distasteful things. Either behave in public as befitting your position, or be prepared to see your decision immortalized.
I'm not doing or saying this out of spite, and I think anyone who considers this in great detail would have a hard time disliking these policies. After all, how many people think big news organizations aren't telling them everything or are maybe even hiding things? We won't do that locally, so don't ask us to.
Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or email@example.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.