For small-town newspapers, striking a balance between reporting the news and maintaining rapport with sources is often a never-ending challenge. Journalists must report on officials who they've known for most or all of their lives, and perhaps a source is a longtime advertiser with the paper. Reporters must ensure outside relations don't color their stories, and any journalist worth her salt knows that slanting the news for the sake of appeasing a source is a big no-no.
But The North Adams Transcript, in North Adams, Mass., must have been absent for that lesson.
Last week, newly hired sports reporter Isaac Avilucea wrote a story about a high school soccer player who transferred from a school called Mount Greylock to the McCann Technical School.
In the story, Avilucea paraphrased his source, who said the academics and athletics at McCann were inferior to those at Mount Greylock. She explained that she transferred to McCann because the girls at Mount Greylock weren't nice to each other. Avilucea included a quote in the story in which the source compared the Mount Greylock girls to the movie "Mean Girls."
School officials at both schools weren't happy about the article: McCann's people didn't like that their programs were called "inferior" and Mount Greylock didn't like being painted as a "mean girl" school. So they complained to the editor of the Transcript. The editor's response? He fired Avilucea, who relocated from New Mexico to Massachusetts less than a month prior to take the job a the Transcript. The editor-in-chief and sports editor jointly wrote an editorial in the paper apologizing for all of the "harm" the article caused.
I admit, Avilucea is a close personal friend of mine, but anyone with any sense of what it means to have journalistic integrity, or quite frankly, anyone with a heart, should feel outraged by how the Transcript dealt with Avilucea.
In the end, Avilucea told me that the paper's editor, Mike Foster, told him they simply couldn't keep him on board because the superintendent had banned Avilucea from the McCann campus, and you can't report on high school sports if you're not allowed to set foot on the field.
I'm immediately reminded of an issue that arose in Española in early 2012 between the Española School board and the newspaper that covers Española, the Rio Grande Sun. The school board and superintendent of schools there said the education reporter failed to cover "positive" stories about the schools. Soon after such remarks were made, the superintendent mandated the Sun's reporters had to ask her permission before they could come come on any of the school campuses. Reporters also had to disclose to her the subject of their potential story and send questions prior to interviewing sources at the schools. The superintendent, Evelyn Maruska, said she was enforcing a policy that had been in place for years, but Sun reporters said that in the past, all they had to do was check in at the schools' front offices before reporting. Sun reporters said that since the policy was in place, obtaining such permission from Maruska had proven to be a challenge, The Albuquerque Journal reported.
As a result of the new regulations, the Sun pulled the plug on coverage of the high school sports team, The Sun Devils, until the restrictions on reporting were lifted. In the space where the paper's sports coverage would have gone, the Sun printed photos of all the school board members as well as the superintendent, and urged readers to contact the officials and ask the policy to be changed if they wanted sports coverage back.
Instead of throwing their reporters under the bus for the sake of catering to school officials, as the folks in North Adams did, they sent a clear message to the school district and found a way to hold school officials accountable for their actions. The issue was, in the end, resolved.
The second we as journalists start sacrificing our colleagues for the sake of maintaining positive relations with sources, we've failed our readers and we have failed in our professions.
The Poynter Institute, BuzzFeed and local radio in Massachusetts have picked up on Avilucea's story. On his blog, a journalism professor at Seton Hall University criticized Avilucea, saying he failed to attribute when he called McCann's academics inferior, and said Avilucea should have handled the quotes of a "child" with more care. Perhaps these are fair points. But by firing the reporter, you're sending the message to school officials that they, not the reporters and not the editors, get to dictate reporting in the newspaper.
Avilucea says he's now seeking employment at other newspapers in the Northeast.
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