Poor judgment in story
There’s nothing like a little controversy to get your day started right, and controversy is what the Tribune got Friday morning, after running a front-page profile of Sunshine Lane, a young woman who splits her time living in South Tahoe and working as a prostitute in Mound House.
Right off the bat (the calls started rolling in before 7 a.m.), the subject matter ruffled a lot of feathers, especially because prostitution is illegal on the California side, where many of our readers live, and because the paper is accessible to young people. And to do a profile that does not judge Lane’s chosen profession is risque Ð many of the dozens of callers Friday morning felt the newspaper was endorsing prostitution by not condemning it.
It’s fair for readers to complain when they feel the paper makes an error in judgment, and letters over the next few days will reflect that. And it is the obligation of the newspaper, when we receive that type of reaction, to evaluate whether we made a mistake, and if so, to fess up.
Here’s the editor’s take on where we went wrong:
Reading the story before publication Friday, we felt readers would deduce the reporter approached the subject without bias, and offered insight into a mysterious way of life that exists only a few miles down the hill. In that way, we felt it was an interesting story.
Fundamentally, though, the biggest thing people objected to was the placement of the story and photo. “I feel that putting this girl on the front page promotes a lifestyle that’s illegal in California,” reader Cathy Martin said. “I don’t think it deserves front-page coverage in a community paper.”
Many of the story’s critics, mostly parents, felt running a profile of a prostitute sends the wrong message to young people who might pick up the paper.
“It presents prostitution as a viable (professional) alternative,” a reader said.
Martin and other peeved readers have a legitimate gripe, although we certainly did not intend for the story to “promote” prostitution. Besides that, the story just didn’t have a news angle that made it important enough for the front page.
In retrospect, to run it elsewhere in the newspaper may have been all right with some of those who complained, and it would have been a better use of “news judgment” to use some restraint, to take a scandalous story off the front page. Perhaps the story didn’t have a place at all in a family newspaper in a tight-knit community. Our complaining readers had it right, and we had it wrong, so we deserve to take our lumps and we apologize.
The newspaper industry is funny this way. We can put 100 great front pages in front of a reader, pages filled with family-oriented stories and photos, but it takes only one to make the reader develop a grudge, and we did that to several of you Friday.
As news people, this is something we will discuss, and as we look back on Friday’s paper, we’ll learn more about the balance between providing our readers with content they want and presenting edgy stories through an unfiltered lens. We want to do both without compromising our integrity.
Several readers felt placing a salacious story on the front with a bold picture and headline (“Young woman in the oldest profession”) smacks of trying to sell papers with the “If it bleeds, it leads” philosophy. In the short term, that can work, but newspapers like the Tribune need credibility to be successful; credible is what the Tribune aspires to be. We try to be consistently good in the community and to the community. That is, after all, how we make a living.
So, if we had it to do over again, we wouldn’t have run Sunshine Lane on the front page. Maybe our sensibility about what many of you find acceptable was askew; maybe we got one wrong. But please, keep in mind those other 99 great front pages. And know we’ll always try to do it better tomorrow.
– Jim Scripps is managing editor of the Tahoe Daily Tribune. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (530) 542-8047.
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