February 02, 2015

Eric Newhouse provides some great insight into community journalism

Recently, current and former AP staffers were asked to weigh in on Connecting, the internal newsletter published by retiree Paul Stevens, on all the various issues surrounding the Charlie Hebdo story, issues of publishing material that might offend someone or a group, etc.

Eric Newhouse, a former AP bureau chief, provided these thoughts that turn out not so much to be about Charlie Hebdo as about community journalism and the reality of being a community journalist.

With Eric's and Paul's permission, I am sharing them here:

Eric Newhouse (Email) - Re Charlie H., just because you have a right doesn't mean you have to exercise it all the time, particularly if you know it will offend or hurt others.

I learned that lesson in my post-AP life as projects editor of the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune. We had committed ourselves to do a 12-part series of stories exploring alcohol abuse in Montana, at least one major package of stories each month for the calendar year 1999. By late February or early March, I was working on a package about how one alcoholic makes the whole family sick, which was to run in April, and the group leader of a local Al-Anon group invited me to sit in on a session.

So I showed up, notebook in hand, and was introduced by name. To make the point clearer, I added that I was a reporter working on a series of stories about alcoholism. No one voiced an objection, so I openly took notes as the meeting progressed.

But after the meeting, a group of women approached to tell me that an Al-Anon tradition requires that what is said in the room stays in the room. They asked me to leave my notebook on the table.

Knowing that by identifying myself as a working reporter without protest, I had a perfect right to report what was said in an open meeting. So I challenged them, asking why and asking how they intended to compensate me for the time that would have been wasted if I left the notebook behind. 

"Give us a moment to talk," their ringleader said.

When they returned, they explained that the tradition was designed to let group members talk honestly without repercussions, and they said they'd be willing to sit around a picnic table with me and tell their stories again in a way that would be more politically correct. "We've all been the victims of alcohol, and we don't want to victimize others," one of the women told me.

That did it for me. I left the notebook on the table, joined them on a park bench outside, and found the new stories were just as compelling as the previous one, although they omitted certain names and details.

The stories ran without incident, but when I began working on the June package, which was how alcohol fuels domestic violence, the wife brought up the Al-Anon encounter and asked how I had resolved it. I told her that I'd left the notebook on the table and that I'd interviewed the women outside the Al-Anon meeting room.

"Just checking," she told me. "Because if you'd screwed our friends over, no one in the alcohol community here would have been willing to speak with you."

My skin crawled when I heard that because I knew that would have been the kiss of death for our 12-part series. Instead the alcohol community supported me, offered tremendous help and encouragement, and celebrated with us when the series won the Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for explanatory reporting.

Incidentally, if anyone is interested in reading that series, I expanded it into a book, Alcohol: Cradle to Grave." Drop a check for $18 into an envelope, send it to me at 141 Rosetta Lane, Charleston WV 25311, and I'll ship you a copy of the book.

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