Written by John Owens, firstname.lastname@example.org Wednesday, 20 February 2013 13:34
Recently, while we editors were giving the newspapers one last look before sending them to press, I received a call from a man with frustration in his voice. He heard we would be publishing an article about a neighbor who was arrested in the Long Island Railroad copper-wire scandal. Charged with conspiracy, the defendant is one of 17 men indicted in the theft and sale of $250,000 worth of copper wire from the railroad.
“Could you pull that article out of the newspaper?” he asked. “To have that in his hometown paper will really hurt him and his family.”
“I feel sorry for him and his family,” I said. “But it is going to run.”
He told me what a good family the man has. That he has kids in school. That his wife is active in the community. And it’s cruel to embarrass him.
Of course, Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice held a press conference about the arrests, distributed mugshots, and even took the defendants on the “perp walk” outside the courthouse so camera crews could catch them. That a local man is part of this big news is big local news. It was the same in another towns where more of the accused conspirators are residents. They, too, were the subjects of articles in the newspapers we publish there.
“When he’s exonerated, we’ll do a big story about that,” I told the caller. “How horrible it was to be accused and his feelings of going free.”
But the caller wasn’t swayed. He said that years ago, another resident was arrested on drug-smuggling charges, and after a couple of phone calls, nothing appeared in the paper.
“I don’t know anything about that,” I told him. “It didn’t happen on my watch.”
It’s no surprise that friends and family are frustrated and angry when these articles appear. I learned that early in my career as a police reporter for a daily newspaper in the Albany area.
I had a report about a man struck by a car while crossing the street. This fellow was familiar to the cops, thanks to several minor run-ins with the law. And, as he was being loaded into the ambulance, a cop stuffed a jaywalking ticket into his pocket. I thought my short article spoke volumes about the cop’s callousness. But the victim’s brother disagreed.
The next night, while a handful of us worked the late shift, a man with a wild look in his eyes and a .38 revolver in his unsteady hand, stormed into the newsroom.
“Who put that story about my brother in the paper?” he shouted in a drunken slur. “Who said he was jaywalking? Who?”
Standing next to me at my tiny desk, crammed with a police scanner and books of criminal and motor vehicle laws, he waved the gun, demanding answers.
The copy chief, a hard-boiled veteran who was busy forging news out of a reporter’s copy, looked up and said, “He’s not here.” And then went back to editing.
Sensing he’d been dismissed, the gunman growled and staggered away.
Small newspapers tell the stories of their communities. The kid winning an award. Bake sales for good causes. Break-ins. Obituaries. And sometimes our friends or family in deep trouble with the law. Like it or not, that, too, is part of the community’s story.