Across the Universe: More snippets from the editor’s notebook
I had a pair of interesting interactions the past few days with readers critical of the Sun’s coverage, particularly in the Friday, Jan. 30, print edition.
As some know, from time to time I like to dip into my “editor’s notebook” to share conversations and examples from readers, with an eye toward better explaining what it is we do at the newspapers — and to offer advice on how we can improve interactions, not just between editor-reporter, but for community members at large.
On Friday, I received an email from a reader who had questions about our Page One story, “A new (interim) era begins,” regarding Tahoe Forest Hospital.
The email was titled “Is this an official statement from the School Board?” It centered on a quote in the story from Randy Hill, a current member of the Tahoe Truckee Unified School District board.
In the quote, we identified Randy as both a Tahoe Vista resident and a school board trustee, which prompted this question from the reader: “What’s the relevance of Mr. Hill being identified as a ‘TTUSD board member?’”
While the story clearly indicated it was only Mr. Hill speaking, I can see how there may be some confusion that the school board was associated with it. Here was my response to the reader:
“The standard we have at the newspaper is that elected officials be identified as such in stories, regardless if that person wishes to comment as ‘a private citizen,’ which Mr. Hill said he was doing (prior to) his comment at the meeting. Our policy (at) the Sun, however, is that one cannot speak as a private citizen if one is an elected official. Barack Obama, for example, cannot comment as a private citizen. He’s President Obama. It holds (him) accountable. But it’s not an official statement from the board, because the board did not issue it.”
He said he appreciated my answer, but that “it would be helpful to list the policy in the article so the reference is clear to the reader.”
That’s a fair point, so I wanted to take the time here to let that be known. It’s the same thing we do every election season in reminding elected officials that if you write a letter endorsing a candidate or encouraging yes or no on a measure, we will not publish it without properly identifying you.
Now, comparing the President of the United States to a small-town school board trustee might be a bit of a stretch, but sometimes examples like that are the best way to describe why we do things the way we do.
THINK BEFORE HITTING SEND
On Saturday, I got a letter that was critical of the cover photo in Friday’s paper, “Water Woes,” showing a drying Boca Reservoir.
I put the photo on the front to tell the ongoing story of how bleak our winter has been and how an incredibly dry January is worsening the drought here in the Sierra; plus, it was a very good photo sent in from a reader, and we like to reward our readers for sending in such good submissions.
The person who sent me the letter (he did not include a last name), however, wasn’t as fond of our choice in subject matter.
Here’s what he had to say: “What’s the point of showing a picture of an empty reservoir on your front page when you could be showing pictures of the homeowners washing pollen off their driveways? Or the ridiculous amounts of water spent on grass lawns (not prevalent in our area outside of the golf courses). If you need a lawn, head down hill.
“The shock and awe of an empty reservoir (a picture) does little. Print the picture of the jackass hosing off his driveway in Tahoe Donner as your example of the water problem. Or, a shot of the neighbor’s irrigation, starting up around 2 or 3 in the afternoon — the absolute worst time you’d run water over your ‘natives.’ That’s the problem. The reservoir is the solution, don’t make it look like it’s the problem. You’re sending the wrong message.”
I let him know I understood his points, but that it’s tough for us with a limited staff to send someone out with a camera and spend time looking for this kind of subject matter.
I never heard back, so I called him up Tuesday and asked for his last name so I could print the letter. He declined, saying he was a bit too heated when he sent it, and he eventually told me to just delete the letter.
I thanked him for his time and feedback, and we hung up the phones. Still, I decided to share this interaction with this particular reader for two main reasons:
1. It’s someone’s opinion on an editorial decision of ours. We, too, are public figures and deserve to be criticized. And while we generally don’t print anonymous letters, I’m using my column as a loophole today in an effort to share an opinion that likely others share as well.
2. Sometimes, it helps to think twice before hitting “send” on an email. I’ve been guilty of this, too — often, the last thing you want to do while emotionally charged is to write something you may regret, or to do so in a non-ideal tone of voice.
The saying goes that time heals all wounds. I’ve learned that it can also save you from getting them, too.
— Kevin MacMillan is managing editor of the Sierra Sun and North Lake Tahoe Bonanza. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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