Gerber: This is how a newsroom really works

Gerber: This is how a newsroom really works

September 2nd, 2012 by Alison Gerber in Opinion Columns

There is no daily conspiracy at the Times Free Press.

By that, I mean editors do not sit around and tell reporters, you "can't" do a story about this or that. In fact, we tell them nothing is off limits. And we don't tell them they must write about a certain person or organization in a favorable or negative light.

That simply isn't how a newsroom operates. Yet it's one of the enduring myths about newspapers - one of many about what we do and how we do it.

We frequently get calls from readers wanting to know why we did or didn't cover something. Some of them assume if we didn't cover a particular event, it's because we "have it out" for the organization.

But we get the same response if we write a story that points out something unflattering, unethical or illegal about a person or organization.

We sometimes have people loyal to Erlanger hospital ask why we favor Memorial. We also hear from Memorial supporters asking why we favor Erlanger.

And don't even get me started on the Fort Oglethorpe vs. Ringgold conversation I had this week.

One reader often calls to ask why we favor sports stories about the universities of Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama but don't like his alma mater, Auburn University. (As an aside, Sports Editor Jay Greeson is an Auburn alum who has sometimes muttered "War Eagle" at meetings, so I can assure you there's no anti-Auburn bias. And I'll be honest, I have some concerns about even saying this because now we'll get people who say, "Oh, so you have a PRO-Auburn bias." You can't win.)

If readers have a negative opinion of a particular organization - or more likely, an arm of government - and we don't write a negative story about it, they think we're kowtowing to that organization. In reality, if we've gotten a tip about the organization, we've looked into the tip and could not substantiate it.

And we must prove it or else we're just tossing unsubstantiated rumors out there, which has nothing to do with journalism. And believe me, we get TONS of unsubstantiated rumors, some that absolutely boggle the mind.

Let me be clear: We're not out to get anyone and we're not covering up for anyone. We're just looking for good stories.

Some seem to have the idea that the editors sit around a table decreeing who is favored and who is not. That couldn't be further from the truth. We do sit around a table twice a day and discuss stories, but the conversation is about the merits of each story, not who we're going to make look good or bad.

We don't always agree. Sometimes we second guess ourselves the next day. And then we pledge to do better next time.

To give readers a little more insight into what we do and how it gets done, here are a few more myths about newspapers and the actual truth:

• Reporters don't usually write headlines. Often, a reporter gets the blame if someone doesn't like the headline. But while reporters typically type a suggested headline on top of their stories, that often gets modified or rewritten completely by the designer laying out the page.

• The same goes for photo captions. Photographers take the photos and write the photo captions, not the reporters. Ideally, the reporter and photographer will have a conversation about the content of the caption to make sure story and caption line up.

• Editors do not assign all stories, although we do assign some. Good reporters find stories themselves. They know their beats, have an extensive network of sources and have good judgment on what makes a good story. Editors love it when a reporter comes to them with a story idea.

Yes, sometimes a reporter will believe something is a story when an editor does not. But that's based only on the news value of the story, not on imaginary lists of "acceptable" and "unacceptable" subjects.

In the end, we rely on reporters - and expect reporters - to man their beats well enough that they know what needs to be covered.

• Readers often think the paper's news editors have a great deal of sway over the opinion section. Not true. Times editor Harry Austin and Free Press editor Drew Johnson write based on their principles, and we do not censor them. Their words reflect their beliefs and opinions, not mine or anyone else's. Editorial cartoonist Clay Bennett enjoys the same freedom.

The columns and cartoons these journalists produce may occasionally make me cringe, but I will always defend them. Austin, Johnson and Bennett are supposed to produce work that makes people think, work that provokes discussion. It's not their job to pander to anyone and it's not our job to tell them - or any column writer, whether they're in opinion, sports, features or news - what to say.

• Some readers think reporters sway what the opinion writers write and vice versa. In reality, the opinion writers and the reporters may discuss the topics of the day or the big local story, but they don't influence what each other writes. There's an invisible wall between newsgathering and editorial writing.

• While the opinion writers are aiming to make a clear point, on the news side our goal is to inform with stories, not to change minds. Just because we publish a story about gay marriage, for example, does not mean we are advocating for or against gay marriage. The same is true for school prayer or gun laws or abortion. We're simply informing our readers about a topic under discussion in our society.

Alison Gerber is the managing editor of the Chattanooga Times Free Press. Reach her at agerber@timesfreepress.com. Send suggestions to readerfeedback@timesfreepress.com.