Unbiased Coverage In A Small Town
During this week’s Halloween parade and carnival at the Nashville Community Center, I was standing to the side of the stage, ready to take photos of kids dressed up in their costumes. The Nashville Lions Club sponsors the event, and runs a costume contest as part of it.
My children, Arianna and James, dressed as a witch and a pirate, respectively, got on stage (or, in James’ case, were carried on stage) for the “Classic Halloween” contest category.
As the judges’ decisions were read, Arianna (the rainbow witch) received second place. OK, OK, good for her. Then, as my wife and James go to follow her offstage, Lion Russ Kohnen stops them, and I begin to panic just a little bit.
First place was read off, and sure enough, James, my little “Bubba,” won. I am proud of my kids– they looked great. Most parents would be proud of course. I can only think of a few others that might be gripped by the kind of panic I was gripped by at that moment.
I am a Nashville Lion. I was taking part in this event, taking kids’ photos, and most importantly, I would put the contest winners’ pictures in the paper.
In the paper.
A little background here. I am the son of a journalist. My father, Jim Haglund, put in nearly 40 years at the Chicago Tribune. When I say that I could think of few others who would understand my panic at my children winning something that would get them into the paper, I really only mean one person that our readers would know: Travis Volz, former Nashville News sports editor and marketing manager, and current WNSV news director.
Travis is also a second generation journalist, as his father, Dave, was a newspaper publisher in northern Illinois and the managing editor here before I was. Travis never got into the paper when he was little, because his dad wouldn’t have let it happen. I never had cause to get into the Tribune, but if I had, my Dad probably would have also had an anxiety attack.
As we’ve done Trick-Or-Treat photos at The Nashville News for the few years that I have been here, I had a rule for Travis and I– our kids could get their photos in, but only if it meant that we weren’t leaving any other peoples’ children out. A fair way of doing it, I think.
Journalists are taught that we should never accept things for our stories beyond our pay, and to never let it look in any way like someone might be buying our words or support with their money, goods, services or anything. While I didn’t technically go to J-School (I’m -sigh- a photography major), I spent so much time at The Daily Egyptian through my time at SIU that some lessons sure came through.
Something that stood out in my mind when considering this column was when word got out that a friend of mine had enjoyed a pizza (and perhaps, a beer too) which was comped to him by the owner of one of the bars, who was also an advertiser at the Daily Egyptian. Horror of horrors! This friend was an entertainment reporter, not a city, school, government, or even sports writer. It was still scandalous in the newsroom.
That’s stuck with me.
At the same time, when I was in school, the bottom hadn’t quite plopped out of the newspaper industry yet, and we all were sort of being prepared to head to big city dailies with staffs and expense accounts and oversight. There was very little in my education there or my Daily Egyptian experience that prepared me for small town newspaper work.
When you’re working for a small town paper, you just might want to accept the pizza (and not just because pizza is wonderful). In a small town, if you don’t have an occasional meal with the folks you’re covering, people are going to start thinking you’re weird. And having come to Nashville just a few years back, I have felt a need to do what I can to ingratiate myself.
At a small town paper, being a part of the community is just as important as the appearance of remaining unbiased. Maybe more so. I’m not saying that I want to be overly influenced by others, and I definitely strive to be fair in my coverage, but to be honest, to do this job at all, you have to make friends. How would you even get anything for the news with the role word-of-mouth plays in a small town, if you didn’t have people you knew?
Furthermore, when you’re in a small town, EVERYTHING is something that could be considered a conflict of interest if you’re uptight enough about it. Every contract given out by a city or village, everyone hired who was locally born, and most of the stories that I do, someone is going to know, or even be related to, someone else.
It’s simply the nature of the beast.
So, my goals remain to be fair, use good judgement, and strive to be as unbiased as possible.
And when the kids’ names are called for winning something, smile. Be happy for them. Take their photos. Just remember to choke down that anxiety.
–Alex Haglund, Managing Editor