By and large, these are not halcyon days for journalism. Many concerns facing the newspaper business are shared by American business in general, like unprecedented competitive pressures, rising costs and an extreme bottom-line orientation at the expense of the finished product, be it widgets or newspapers.
But the erosion of public trust in the news media is an even greater concern. There have been chronic stresses, like the drive to become all things to all people (“Live at 10: a water-skiing squirrel!”) or the gaping maw of 24-hour news coverage that must be fed constantly, which often leaves too little time for stories to be thoroughly edited and fact-checked.
Individual journalists have flamed out as well, and the cumulative effect of all these woes is that a jaded public often doesn’t know who to believe.
But close to home, the principles of journalism are alive and well. For example, when Hauser Junior High principal Joel Benton resigned mid-year under unclear circumstances, the rumor mill worked overtime and concerned parents demanded information. The local papers immediately swung into action, requesting copies of Benton’s severance package and resignation letters from the District 96 board through the Freedom of Information Act.
Many parents were disappointed that the documents contained little of substance. Benton and the board apparently wanted to keep the circumstances of his resignation private, as they are legally entitled to do. But, from a journalistic perspective, the process worked the way it is supposed to work.
More recently, I found myself in a friendly conversation that held the germ of an important local news story. As we waited to pick up our children from school, a friend remarked that she had seen a SWAT team on Nuttall Road recently, swarming a house.
I called editor Bob Uphues and asked what he knew about the incident, which was nothing. He called the local police, who also knew nothing.
If you read the story “DEA makes mistaken visit to Riverside home” in the April 19 Landmark, you know what happened. It turns out that the Berwyn Police had decided to do some spring cleaning and serve all their old arrest warrants.
Trouble is, they apparently did so without verifying that the person they sought still owned the property on Nuttall. Unfortunately for them, he does not. And they did not give the Riverside Police the courtesy of advance notification, which might have prevented the fiasco that followed.
Instead of nabbing their target, the DEA and Berwyn Police allegedly descended onto the property of a family with no connection to the warrant whatsoever.
By any measure, this incident should not have occurred. Once it did, the Berwyn Police were undoubtedly hoping to slink away quietly and be done with it. But the public interest was well served by the newspaper’s scrutiny of these troubling events. And I for one am grateful. As a reader and citizen, I want to know of any possible transgressions by local governmental agencies. That’s the real strength of community journalism.
Newspapers aren’t created in a vacuum, which is where you come in. Community journalism works best with hefty doses of public involvement combined with open governing bodies and the expertise of careful, conscientious journalists.
I, for one, am always delighted when a friend or acquaintance wants to talk about local events or offers information on a developing story.
So, when in doubt, pick up the phone and call a local reporter or editor, or even a lowly columnist like me. You just might be sitting on the next big story.