The role of the community newspaper has been both suspect and ambiguous, since the earliest origins of producing local news. The first recorded paper was labeled ‘suspect’ in 1690 when Benjamin Harrison, one of the first English journalists printed, but was unable to distribute, the ‘Publick Occurrences: Both Foreign and Domestic’.
Local authorities declared it “sundry doubtful and uncertain Reports.” The ambiguity of the community newspaper’s role is determined by the culture of each community. Some communities fully embrace their hometown paper and other communities culturally hold their paper at arm’s length.
Two certainties about small town papers are they seek a place within community discussion, and they operate under the Code of Journalistic Ethics. The ethics were first adopted in 1926 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors. The Code of Ethics sets forth four principles, under which journalists and small-town papers pledge to operate:
- Seek Truth and Report It
- Minimize Harm
- Act Independently
- Be Accountable and Transparent.
Under this guidance small town newspapers are held to constant, exceptional standards.
Seeking the full truth to report is labor intensive and is accomplished, at the rate at which the small-town paper can allocate tight resources to the story which necessarily eats up staff time. To those waiting for full truth, the wait and the process can seem all at once, hopeful, opaque and ambiguous.
There is news which comes mainlining into the newsroom, such as accidents or community events. There is also the type of news in which community newspapers bring issues to light on behalf of constituents who do not have a forum to pursue the whole truth or print it.
All of it is news and all of it requires the full truth of what is reported. We all seek and demand the truth – it’s what we do with that truth after reading a story, is the follow up question that needs to be asked by everyone of us.
Accountability of truth empowers everyone to be responsible, and it’s that duty which must always come forward to make a positive impact upon the lives of others.
Patrick Shelby for the Sunnyside Sun editorial board.