Commentary: The news media is your watchdog


Take a minute to think about your dog. Your watchdog.

He is the companion who is on high alert when a visitor walks into your house or when the doorbell chimes.

The guest might be your minister, your neighbor or someone looking for a way to later make an unauthorized entrance into your home.

It’s all the same to your watchdog. The barking will be frantic for a period of time.

It’s the dog’s way of warning a homeowner of something they may need to know.

Is something amiss? Take this information (the barking) and find out.

And now, imagine your watchdog is not a four-legged pet.

It’s those of us in the media who make our living by reporting on news events.

There will be the inevitable happy occasions such as weddings, walk-off home runs and individual awards of distinction that receive their share of deserved coverage.

There will also undoubtedly be the moments we aren’t anxious to relive, the crime spree in our neighborhood, the police chase that took place a few streets away from us or the latest troubling news that emanated from our local school.

This is where reality has changed for those of us who focus on journalistic endeavors as a profession.

There was once a respect reserved for these trained individuals who distributed the news that many of us need to know, or would be better off knowing.

With the proliferation of blogs and the innumerable social media outlets, however, it can be difficult to distinguish who is passing off opinion as fact and who are the reliable sources who are looking out for the public’s best interests.

Legitimate news sources are frequently confused with the message instead of being separated as the messenger.

When we write about topics that might present a portion of a group in a less than favorable light — such as the current trend of “JUULing” among students at Mahomet-Seymour High School — the reaction is not necessarily shock that this could take place locally, but anger that such topics are presented to the public.

The common laments when incidents of this type become public are, “Why bring up the negative?” and “What do you have against (fill in the blank?)”

Suddenly, it seems, the message is not the news as much as the person or organization who delivered it.

The point should be that an opportunity is presented for conversations, perhaps between administrators and staff; perhaps between parents and their children, and solutions should be sought, rather than burying the problem with hopes it doesn’t transcend into something more serious.

As much as we might want to believe these things always happen elsewhere, there is no reason to expect any community should be immune from drug use, the possibility of violence, other crimes or careless misdeeds.

Isn’t the real question whether image is more important than substance?

Twenty-five years ago I was embroiled in a controversy that shouldn’t have involved me.

A parochial high school baseball team was playing a game that would determine whether it would advance in the state tournament series.

The coach was a known disciplinarian who was unwavering in his set of rules for all team members.

One guideline concerned the length of players’ hair. If he noticed someone getting close to the limit, he would remind them to get a haircut.

On the Saturday of this particular championship game, the team’s star left-handed pitcher was told he was being suspended for violating team rules. His hair was longer than what was allowed.

Without the presence of this player — who would later pitch in college — the parochial team played its last game of the season that afternoon.

The backlash was not directed at the coach for being inflexible, nor at the player for being lax in adhering to the rules. The reporter felt the repercussions for focusing a story on an event that many perceived detracted from what the team had accomplished collectively to get to that point in the season.

It’s the responsibility of the news media to tackle these topics. We don’t play a role in whether they take place. Our job is to report the happenings once they do occur.

I would write that baseball story in exactly the same way today as I did in the 1990s because it needed to be told and not because of what the player said to me several years later when I ran into him at a summer league game.

He thanked me for writing it, saying it made him realize that a person does not need to like the rules, but they need to obey the ones that are required to be part of an organization and that he recognized too late his actions affected not only himself, but also a dozen of his teammates.

What people do with the information from the media is their choice. If they don’t discuss it with others and learn from it, then at least the reason wasn’t that they were unaware of what was taking place and why.

Reporters don’t always like every aspect of the job and what it forces us to do, but communities are all better off because those of us in the media diligently do the job we were entrusted to do.

Public service is more than focusing on the positives.

The watchdogs are in place, whether friend or foe.

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