What’s the right motto for a newspaper edited by a “real” journalist? The New York Times has used this old gem since 1896: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.”
That brings me to one of the subtler parts of my job. I get story tips all the time and eagerly look into them. When they’re newsworthy and have credible sources, BAM! I put them in the paper. I’m so, so, so happy when an involved citizen or official reaches out to me with a story idea. I can’t possibly know everything on my own.
Of course, the juiciest tips often arrive on Monday, when I am preparing to go to press on Tuesday. I think that happens because the tipster has stewed about it all weekend and decided at the start of the week to just go for it. So sometimes I have to hustle to find out quickly what’s going on.
But when there’s significant doubt about the facts, or the incident has blown over by the time I hear about it (and rehashing it wouldn’t be helpful) – or even if it turns out to be a dust-up that doesn’t rise to the level of real news – then I just let out a wistful editorial sigh and move on to something else for now.
Story ideas aren’t usually forgotten, even if they are shelved for the immediately upcoming issue of the paper. If I learn more after research and interviews, I’ll write about a topic later when I’m confident I have the facts.
I can’t write about what I can’t reasonably believe to be true.
It doesn’t necessarily mean the story idea passed along to me was “fake news.” It just means that I can’t back it up (yet) or I’ve uncovered context that relieves the need to write about the topic. Some story ideas I keep simmering on the back burner. Some are definite no-nos.
That’s a big part of journalism: Not only knowing what to write about, but also knowing what (and when and how) not to cover something.
I’ve gotten an anonymous letter about school bullying that make allegations I can’t look into because the writer didn’t share her name or contact info. I’ve seen incidents blow up on social media and later turn out to be much milder than commentary indicated at first.
I’ve heard claims of excessive force by law enforcement officers, hints at hinky political deals and tips about supposed cover-ups. And I’ve gotten harsh but hilarious hand-colored editorial cartoons criticizing local politicians for allegations that I can’t responsibly share with the public.
At another newspaper, I once had a despairing parent call to expose how their deranged former spouse was RUBBING BUTTER on their terrified kids to “protect them from evil” and was praying crazy things over the kids for hours, and the sane parent was worried what would come next. All I could do was direct them to police and social services.
One man waltzed into my newspaper’s office in Tupelo, Miss., many years ago wearing jeans and a purple silk cowboy shirt with white fringe, and he was grandly and thoroughly drunk. He shared with me how he had first smelled and then seen Bigfoot in a place he nonchalantly referred to as “Booger Bottom.”
He said it was a female Bigfoot, and as proof he handed me a pencil sketch of a gorilla with big, perfect circles in the general boob area. He also shared that he’d written a song about the encounter that was all the rage in Europe. I still have the cassette tape of his song.
I’ve also gotten wonderful normal feature story ideas that I’ve been unable to do immediately because I just didn’t have the bandwidth to do another story that week. I try to follow up whenever I can. I hate it when I have to miss an opportunity, especially for good news.
So if you pass along a story idea to me, I will gratefully accept it. And I’ll research it to my satisfaction before putting it in the paper because that’s how it should work. If you don’t hear back from me within a few days, feel free to prod my memory again. I’m only human, but I try to be accountable and to share serious news and lighter feature stories when I can.
CAROLYN BAHM is the editor of The Bartlett Express. Contact her by phone at (901) 433-9138, by fax to (901) 529-7687 and by email to email@example.com.