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Sources are subjects, not choosers in news reporting business

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By Jackie Torok, Managing Editor

Perhaps the worst thing about having spent most of my career in South Carolina was hearing people refer to the University of South Carolina as “Carolina.” Being a product of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, UNC’s the only Carolina in my mind and I don’t pay much attention to the Gamecocks.

I did last week, though, when I caught wind of the dust-up at The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C. The word was the publisher had expressly prohibited Ron Morris, a longtime sports columnist covering the Gamecocks, from writing about the University of South Carolina football program because the team’s head coach, Steve Spurrier, didn’t like it. On top of that, the newspaper reportedly hired a self-proclaimed “superfan” and friend of Spurrier to cover the football program instead.

I’ve read some of Morris’ stuff, and I have to say I didn’t particularly enjoy it. He comes off as a bit of an instigator — which, in the context of his work as a columnist, is perfectly fine but not my cup of tea. I can easily see why Spurrier and the Gamecock faithful wouldn’t be fans of his work. But, again, Morris was writing columns, meaning it was his job to give his opinions about the program. He’s supposed to be provocative and he’s succeeded ­— especially judging from a tantrum Spurrier famously threw last year when he refused to conduct a news conference if Morris was there.

Never, ever should the subject of a story or column dictate how it is written. Otherwise, it’s public relations, not journalism. Replacing negative bias with positive bias in this instance leaves the same perceived problem — bias —in place.

By the end of the week, The State apparently backtracked and said Morris could still write about Gamecock football after all. But the damage has been done.

So much for notion there’s no such thing as bad press.

Now I’ll admit that, in addition to being a Tar Heel, I’m a long-suffering Cleveland sports fan. Maybe you’ve heard I’ve no good reason to be optimistic that the Indians, Browns or Cavs will bring a national championship in pro baseball, football or basketball to my hometown in my lifetime. When I read The Plan Dealer, Cleveland’s daily newspaper, or its neighboring daily, the Akron Beacon-Journal, I want the sports columnists to give it to me straight about how bad my teams really are. I want their honesty and their perspective, even if I don’t always agree with it. When I read their actual coverage of the games, the players and the coaches, I want the facts, which I will, in turn, frame according to my own perspective.

That’s the difference between writing a column and writing a story, by the way. The writer gets to inject his opinion into a column; his story leaves it up to readers to make up their own minds about how to feel or act about a subject.

It never fails, though. We can publish a story in which every line is attributed to a source, but someone will complain that the reporter somehow is taking sides.

Here’s the deal, folks: You don’t get to pick the reporter who covers you, your organization or your event. That’s how it is here at the Beacon, anyway.

We have three full-time reporters covering Brunswick County, which is roughly the size of Rhode Island. Although we have a loose beat system in place, where one reporter will usually cover the same subject, every reporter is general assignment, ready to cover news of any kind when it happens in Brunswick County. Each of our reporters writes stories based on facts, interviews and documentation.

Sometimes their stories are features on the people who make our community great. Sometimes their stories are about what goes on at your government meetings — which can be great, awful, neither, or something in between, depending on how you look at it. Sometimes their stories are about crimes that make no sense to anyone.

But remember, readers: The way you choose to interpret the information they share is entirely up to you.

And here’s one last tip to every news source out there: If you want so-called good press, do something to earn it.

 

Jackie Torok is the managing editor of the Beacon. Reach her at 754-6890 or editor@brunswickbeacon.com.