There is honor in this work of newspaper journalism
I n six decades of writing for newspapers, this journalist has done some fairly significant stories that warrant large headlines across the top of the paper’s front page. I have also penned stories that seemed small and insignificant but that most likely directly affected as many people as one of those major stories with a two-inch-high headline.
But the most disturbing stories are those that somehow are bogged down in intricacies, unprovable secrets and the capacity to be hurtful to innocent souls who are merely on the periphery of a news event.
Newspaper journalists tell the stories that need telling and they do it in as much detail as they can ferret out. It is an honorable profession, one in which I am proud to still be involved.
One of my favorite newspaper columnists, Leonard Pitts, put it this way: “ To hear an editor debate whether a story is fair to some deplorable individual most would consider unworthy of the effort or to watch a reporter rush toward danger to tell a story that needs telling is to be unalterably convinced of the honor in this work.” This can all easily occur at aptly labeled “community newspapers,” such as this one, where no one ever expects the town to be involved in banner headline events.
In this country, newspapers are bound by a self-imposed code of ethics that are even stricter than our very effective Texas libel and slander laws.
Such strictures, coupled with an unwillingness of people who had intricate knowledge of a major wrong- doing, prevented me from doing a story about a civic leader in a community who, with his children, played host regularly to very large teen parties where alcohol flowed freely. This professional man was president of the local school board. We were able to print just enough of the story so that when the next election approached, he wisely declined to seek reelection. I believe to this day that if someone had come forth with more details of this ongoing travesty, the man would’ve, and should’ve, been behind bars for a long period of time.
He had some very powerful backers and that umbrella saved him from criminal charges.
Unquestionably, the biggest story since my news side beginnings in the late 1950s, came in 1998 in Jasper where three white supremacists dragged a black man, James Byrd Jr., to death.
While that was unquestionably a major news event, there were many things that went on in the background and much of which I personally witnessed that makes the Byrd family by far the greatest example of faith, dignity and grace I have ever known. To me, that aspect is the most significant and emphatic truth to emerge from that intricate and involved story.
Thankfully, my journalist’s ingrained skepticism often gets tempered with the “good” stories. And the Byrd family’s complete story crumbles any wall of misgivings. While I’ve been blessed with many “good big stories,” some of the most satisfying tales to tell involve seemingly small events where the goodness of life in this country is underscored in meaningful ways.
Sometimes we read of “ordinary” folks doing “extraordinary” things. Doubtless that is the ongoing hope of any news reporterwriter, to find ordinary people performing extraordinarily good deeds.
But, as a longtime community newspaperman, I have always found great satisfaction in stories that were about the significant mileposts in individual lives. The image I conjure up when I consider what might be emblematic of a good story is that of a youngster in a cap and gown, walking across a stage, with a wonderfully satisfying smile as they accept a diploma. A photo of that moment lends truth and depth to the journalistic honor of covering such a representative good story.
It’s community newspaper journalism, always the scrapbook for great American family moments. firstname.lastname@example.org