March 10, 2008

A community newspaper slapped for reaching out?

The Mount Airy News in north-central North Carolina last week published a series of stories about some North Carolina missionaries who were stranded while on a mission to Cameroon. Some readers questioned the coverage, as many of the missionaries were apparently from outside of the traditional news boundaries of The News.

The editors on Sunday published an explanation for why they crossed their own community boundaries, and said their choice was essentially to offer a helping hand to a needy stranger:

"When a desperate loved one says she is frustrated with diplomatic efforts to get her spouse out of country boiling over in civil unrest," the editorial states, "and needs the local media to cast a spotlight on a neglected continent and put some pressure on the bureaucrats, there's no time to quibble about boundaries. The first response from any responsible journalist should be to find a way to cover the story and to enlist as many media outlets as possible to aid in the effort."

The editorial obviously was based on feedback the newspaper received regarding its reporting. One critic challenged the newspaper's devotion of a "really thin" reporting staff to a story that had more to do with Washington, D.C., bureaucracy than local news in the Mount Airy region. (Another critic took potshots at the grammatical errors in the editorial -- boy, do we journalists love THOSE kinds of critics).

The message for journalism educators is multi-faceted. First, it suggests that community news media can have an influence on government at the state and national levels. It also suggest that community news media can set a national news agenda by being the first to pick up and run with a story that is being ignored by "the big guys." It also serves as an example that people served by community news media are not always oblivious to the limitations faced by community journalists nor to the differences between community journalism and regional/national journalism.

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