I generally find it in bad taste to criticize a competitor. And Lord knows, the Daily Journal isn’t perfect either, so the high moral ground on which I decide to stand may have a few potholes that are easy to trip over.
But today, I found myself shocked at a grand ethical breach by the Richmond Observer — a breach that points out the difference between committed journalists and those who play-act at being news gatherers.
A little background: I got into this business in 1974, the year of the Watergate hearings, when a lot of the nation’s focus was on ethical and unethical behavior. I had just finished 3½ years at the journalism school of the University of South Carolina and believed firmly that journalists held themselves to high ethical standards. They may have had feet of clay as individuals in their daily lives — maybe some of them drank too much or had broken marriages like everybody else — but their mission as journalists was sacred.
Because I also was religious, this truth-telling appealed to me. Above all, I thought, journalists should always report the unvarnished truth — as that old Joe Friday saying requres: Just the facts, ma’am.
Now to what happened with the Observer.
Our reporter Gavin Stone had heard that Jerry’s Diner in Hamlet was closing. Rumor had it that the business owner wasn’t doing as well as he had hoped and was considering closing shop. We had covered the opening so committed ourselves to a follow-up.
Now, we don’t report on rumors, but we checked this one out to see whether it would lead to news.
Gavin called the owner of the storefront from which Jerry’s operates and talked to her about what was going on. (We could not reach the owner.) She asked how he had gotten his information. He told her — from Facebook posts. She said she would talk to the owner and get back to Gavin when she knew something definite. Turns out she got back to him about noon Saturday, when he wasn’t in the office.
At 5 a.m. Monday, the Richmond Observer posted a story on Jerry’s Diner — that it was reconsidering how the business operated and might be making some changes. Rumors of its demise were exaggerated and hey! If you’d like to support a local business, come on down next Thursday. The owners are only on vacation! The article even contained what appeared to be a summary of the diner’s menu, as well as some of the information Gavin had relayed to the building’s owner in hopes of having her explain what was going on.
And who had written the article? The very owner of the building in which the diner has space and whom Gavin interviewed. (She is a regular contributor to the Observer, writing about Hamlet businesses and Hamlet City Council meetings.)
So, if you, trying to support a local business, went down to the diner, you would be doing the writer of the article a favor. You’d be putting money into her pockets. Indirectly maybe, but still.
This reminded us of when the Observer first started. I would see its editor, whose main job was as a teacher for Richmond County Schools, cover the School Board and superintendent who “signed” his check.
Real journalists do not report on people to whom they are related or for whom they once worked.
They do not take things of monetary value from sources. (My professors told us to take nothing more than a cup of coffee, if offered.)
Real journalists do not embellish their stories with florid commentary, even if they like the people about whom they are reporting. They report the news — “good,” “bad” or indifferent — and do so without hidden agendas.
Now, you can get your “news” wherever you wish to. Competition is a good thing. It’s supposed to keep us honest and vigilant.
But having ethics is even better if you want to be credible. And so-called “citizen journalists” sometimes don’t have them in their zeal to be boosters.
There’s a difference between supporting community interests by fair coverage — which we try to do — and enriching oneself.
We hope that the Richmond Observer someday discovers that.
Then maybe we can compete honestly.
Reach Christine Carroll at 910-817-2673 or [email protected]