Two weeks ago, I wrote about police raids at the weekly Marion County Record in Kansas and the home of its editor. Since then, those events have generated a remarkable amount of national news coverage, as journalists have sounded alarms about threats to the First Amendment.
But the story has raised another interesting question about reporting in small towns.
The raids “have been roundly condemned by news organizations and free press advocates,” wrote Kevin Draper in the New York Times on Aug. 19. “Marion residents, however, are having far different conversations about the over 150-year-old paper and its owner and editor, Eric Meyer, who has been running day-to-day operations for the past two years. At the center of the discussions: What is the appropriate relationship between a community and a local news organization, and what duty, if any, does it have to be a booster for the places it covers?”
The local grocery store owner is quoted in the Times saying that the Record focuses too much on bad news. “The role should of course be positive about everything that is going on in Marion, and not stir things up and look at the negative side of things,” he said.
Editor Meyer, naturally, rejected that view, saying that his newspaper was simply doing its job as a watchdog on government. “He said the paper’s journalism made the town stronger,” the Times reported.
The truth is reporters and editors are a lot like everybody else in a community. They spend time thinking about both kinds of stories — the positive things that are going on and the problems. At the Independent, when we take on a story that might cause pain or embarrassment, we ask out loud at our editorial meetings what the purpose of reporting it would be.
Last week’s article by one of our summer journalism fellows, Elias Schisgall, about the history of the Ku Klux Klan in Provincetown in the 1920s stirred up some disturbing news about the past. We’ve all heard the stories about how the Klan burned a cross in front of St. Peter’s, the Catholic church in Provincetown. But the facts about the extent of such activities here have never before been reported.
We had heard that there were documents related to the Klan in the archives of the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum. To his credit, the museum’s director, K. David Weidner, opened those archives to our reporter, even though he knew that the results might be uncomfortable for some local families.
The 1920s were a period of virulent anti-immigrant and anti-Catholic sentiments in the U.S., and as last week’s article showed, our towns were not immune. Now we are living in an era of increasing racism and xenophobia. Once again, there’s no reason to believe we are immune to such ideas, even though they may play out in our communities in unconscious ways — as suggested by the data reported this week by reporter Sophie Mann-Shafir on arrests and traffic stops of Black people.
Like Eric Meyer in Marion, we believe careful, factual reporting of these stories makes us stronger.