Pieces of Real Truth

ERNEST F. IMHOFF

October 31, 1993|By ERNEST F. IMHOFF

Every newspaper reporter has wanted at one time or another to write a political story, a society story, an obituary or a sports story that really told the truth.

Alexander Woollcott, a bon vivant of the New York literary scene in another day, once edited a book for World War II soldiers. In the American fact section, he inserted Robert Quillen's version of the truth, a real wedding story that used fictitious names. No dummy, Mr. Quillen was worried about libel and assault, but didn't want to do the same old wedding story. His piece in the Fountain Inn (S.C.) Tribune had nuggets like this one:

''The groom is a popular young bum who hasn't done a lick of work since he got shipped (kicked out of college) in the middle of his junior year. He manages to dress well and keep a supply of spending money because his dad is a soft-hearted old fool who (( takes up his bad checks instead of letting him go to jail where he belongs.'' The story ended, ''The happy pair anticipates a blessed event in about five months.''

Much as we're tempted, we can't write such stories and keep our jobs. While we may tell jokes such as one attributed to a late press magnate -- ''Too much checking on the facts has ruined many a good news story'' -- there are forms we pour stories and newspapers into.

Newspaper people aim for the truth and find fragments by treading through a house of mirrors: our definition of news, libel and privacy laws, common sense, good taste, ethics codes, guidelines, stylebooks, our own biases, rules of reporting and tradition.

Halloween weekend is a good excuse to check out some gremlins that shape newspapers. These hobgoblins spook American journalism in general, not just The Sun, and become institutional realities. So, here is the real truth, as I know it and bits and pieces of it.

Ever notice how newspapers look alike today? Glance at a bunch of newspaper boxes. The makeup is remarkably similar, not to mention stories covered. Newspaper people, like any other self-respecting group wishing to keep up with the times, are skilled pilferers. They copy each other. USA Today reinvents journalism as summaries of life, and papers line up behind.

Ideas beget ideas that are often the same ideas. In the 1960s, a few papers began action lines to help people collect their garbage; many followed. Then op-ed pages. Then more local columnists. Then color. Then polling. Then focus groups. Then, skyboxes at the top of the front page. It's been a while since papers were really different from each other.

Local television news programs around the country often follow the agenda put out by the local newspaper. What would TV do without newspapers to decide what news to cover? Local TV does break stories, but still relies heavily on work done by the far larger newspaper staffs. Newspaper reporters recall with mixed pride and annoyance their own words, perhaps filtered by a wire service, being read over the air.

I support cultural diversity in the newsroom. Why not extend it to hiring conservative writers at predominantly liberal papers? Some papers eagerly seek different ethnic groups, but many practitioners are from the same political mold: liberal. Forward-looking newspapers reject the excuse, ''We don't have many blacks because few apply here.'' They go out and look for people of color. Good idea. Try the same approach for conservatives. They may be harder to spot, but they may offer different perspectives and story ideas.

Editors (not to mention media critics) talk about getting in touch with their readers and the need to be ''reader-friendly,'' but I suspect few listen and talk with many readers regularly. Editors like non-interactive focus groups where readers and news people are separated by one-way mirrors. Big decisions are often made on this basis.

Outside this venue, readers are often viewed as chronic complainers. Some are, and most are negative, but the 25 to 40 people I talk with daily are different enough or correct enough of the time that we can learn from them. Editors and reporters can get out more and on the phone more without losing their precious press freedom and control.

Finally, big stories dominate, then disappear. Remember the Ohio teen-age driver who ran over 10 Amish children and killed five of them last spring? It was a major national story. Last week he got 7 to 15 years in prison, but it was just a paragraph or photo or nothing in some papers. Newspapers lure readers into interesting stories, move on to new news and rarely look back to check how the old news ended or continues. Readers have memories and would like more follow-ups regularly.

Ernest F. Imhoff is The Sun's reader representative.

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