Bleeding the Black Ink

Newspaper roles: A canine conundrum

"You can't have real newspapers without democracy, and you can't have democracy without newspapers."

Alexis de Tocqueville

Tocqueville, a French observer of America more than 170 years ago, made this point regarding newspapers and their evolution within a fledgling democracy.

And without a doubt, newspapers continue to evolve.

But where have newspapers been and where are they going? What is the role of newspapers within the community they serve?

According to the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, newspapers have gone through different models, some of which are still in existence today.

Jan Schaffer, the executive director for the center, said the older model of newspapers, especially community and regional publications, took on the role of lap dogs, which meant they pandered to particular groups or advertisers or played the part of civic booster in order to bolster advertising dollars.

Lap dogs often played favorites with political parties and the news they portrayed could hardly be called balanced.

While "lap dogs" were often criticized, some readers seemed to appreciate the lack of controversy and the comfort of "society items" that often filled their pages.

The lap dog, however, has changed over the years to become the attack dog.

As Schaffer points out, examples of the attack dog can be seen when reviewing the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal and images of photojournalists hiding in the bushes of the Kennedy compound in the aftermath of the death of John F. Kennedy Jr.

At first glance, the attack dog seemed to be attractive if in a somewhat vulgar way. Didn't it "give the people what they wanted?"

But sometimes the attack dogs often ended up biting their tongues because of their overzealousness in pursuing "the story," which often meant pounding the square peg into the round hole whether it fit or not. An example of this foaming-at-the-mouth approach can be seen in Richard Jewell, the Olympic security guard who first discovered a pipebomb minutes before it exploded in the 1996 summer Olympic games held in Atlanta. He spotted the green knapsack that contained the pipe bomb minutes before it exploded. He alerted police and helped move people away from the site. One person was killed and 111 injured by the device. But Jewell's days of glory ended three days later when the Atlanta Journal Constitution rushed out an extra edition headlined "FBI Suspects Hero Guard May Have Planted Bomb."

The rush to judgement tarnished the reputation of Jewell, who was later cleared.

But the incident also left newspapers in the doghouse.

Journalists themselves, however, prefer the term "watchdog" if attributes of canine character must be used.

This is the role most people in community say is necessary and valuable.

But even the watchdog role has come under fire recently as readers, and even some journalists come to the conclusion that the press is often doing more than just covering a story. The accusation is that media drive the controversies, especially in looking at the personal and ethical behavior of those in community leadership positions.

So if lap dogs, attack dogs, and watchdogs aren't the answer to the roles newspapers should take on, what is left.

Within the last 10 years, the concept of civic or community journalism has come to light. This would put the role of community journalism in the role of "guide dog."

A newspaper would not simply report on the latest "civic freak show of the day" but challenge its readers to get involved and take ownership of the challenges its community faces. This is the role that the Craig Daily Press sees as vital and worth the aspirations of its staff.

"Bleeding the Black Ink" is a weekly column that aims at getting readers better acquainted with the Craig Daily Press. Do you have a question or an issue for an upcoming column? Call Terrance Vestal at 824-7031 or email him at tvestal@craigdailypress.com.

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