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Hard, fast rules of reporting

December 27, 2009

Like most professions, journalism has a few fast and hard rules.

Foremost is be accurate, everything from the spelling of names to who sent how much money to whom to influence a decision on spending taxpayers' money.

Then there's the duty to tell as many sides of the story as you can; present interesting facts and people in a readable fashion - and do it all on deadline.

Like many other professions, success can be a relative thing.

A lawyer whose skills prevent someone from getting a death sentence pleases his client but probably infuriates family members of the victim.

A reporter who tells the world about an economically struggling community may focus national attention - and the prospect of assistance - on the problem but offend the residents.

Such is the case with the Dec. 16 Washington Post story about the economic trials and tribulations of the Mahoning Valley.

The piece looks at the people and places from Warren to Youngstown that are struggling to cope with yet another recession. Businesses are closing. Jobs are being lost. Hard-earned benefits are being cut or eliminated.

It's an ugly picture, but, we tell ourselves, one we've seen many times since 1977, when Youngstown Sheet & Tube became the first of the ''rusted-out mastodons'' the story mentions that line the Mahoning River.

So, what's new about the story? And, if nothing's new, why write it?

Fair questions, but consider:

The Washington Post didn't single us out. In fact, the piece is part of the Post's larger series about coping with recession. Other stories profile a single mother in a Washington suburb who's homeless after losing a $698,000 house she couldn't afford; a graduate of George Washington University who had to go home to Montana because she can't find a job and a smalltown independent logger in Alabama struggling to stay in business.

They're all stories of our times - stories many of us will tell with a measure of pride to our grandchildren about how tough we had it, just as our grandparents tell us about walking five miles each way to school through a snowstorm with holes in their shoes and clothes.

It's true the story didn't look at our many ''green shoots'' - the successful technology companies in the Youngstown Business Incubator; Youngstown being named one of the top 10 cities in the nation by Entrepreneur Magazine in which to start a business, the coming of the Chevrolet Cruze to the General Motors Corp. Lordstown Complex and many others.

We have a right - you could even say a duty - to plead our case to those who ignore our strengths, but it's vital not to get caught in the shoot-the-messenger syndrome.

Our response should be constructive. Business and community leaders should continue to tell the story of our progress, as they are already are doing with the Regional Chambers' recent trade mission to China, the Come to Warren Web site and other efforts.

We can always do more. This is the information age. Make some phone calls. Coordinate an email blast campaign to let people know in a respectful way about the good that's happening here.

But don't spin, oversell or sugar-coat. The messages have to ring with truth. Credibility is everything.

If the Post story is a black eye for our area, let's drag ourselves off the ground as we always do and use it to motivate us to turn it something positive.

That's the true calling for our leaders.



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