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Like Harvey, integrity more important than awards

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My Views

By Stephen Thomas

Hello, Bullitt Countians! I'm Steve Thomas.

As a former radio employee and a member of the media, the news of Paul Harvey's passing rang loud and clear in my mind, just as his voice did.

Harvey did the absolute best news show in history, including his famous "The Rest of the Story" segments.

In his honor, I tried to put together a story similar to one of Harvey's. It's not very easy, though.

Rather, I'll discuss something that I now realize just might be the most important aspect of Harvey's career: Integrity.

I've read that even at a very young age Harvey pretended to read news on the radio. At that age I only introduced records, with no intent of reciting boring news items.

Though I did some writing for a school newspaper in college, I never felt destined to become a journalist. Unlike many of my contemporaries, I sort of fell into it.

Apparently I did it backwards: More people dream of being a journalist, then they do it, then they decide a 'real' job from 9 to 5 wasn't such a crazy idea.

So I became a journalist with no intention of ever being one. I never really enjoyed writing. But I'm apparently good enough at it to make a living.

Now that I'm a journalist I learned many lessons on the job. One that stands out to me is not a how-to-do-it lesson, but rather a how-it-is.

I'd heard about it. I'd seen glimpses of it in person. It was the train derailment a few years back that confirmed it for me: Journalism in modern times is very bizarre.

When national, regional and local media gurus swarmed upon our area, I found myself hobnobbing with the journalistic elite. Actually, it was more like elbowing with the Brahma bulls.

The questions that were asked at those press conferences, and subsequent media events I’ve attended since, make no sense to me whatsoever. I always reported, I didn’t know you could ask leading questions to make up your own story and then call it a report, or lead a non-professional speaker into a twist of wordings to create an even more controversial situation than the one that the press conference was scheduled for.

I could never understand going up to someone moments following a traumatic situation and asking them how they feel. I always believed that universally all people will feel pretty much the same way if they were put into this situation. But sometimes I have to get the notebook out and ask hard questions. When I have to, I get through it by keeping one thing foremost in mind: If this person were me, how would I feel about a reporter asking me difficult questions?

I suppose that's integrity. More often than not, if I am going to be a burden to the person, I'd just assume not bother them at all. Where does the fine line fall between integrity and journalism?

When someone is involved in a car accident, it is theoretically and technically a news story. Upon determining this, what exactly does the story consist of? Does it consist of a photograph of a damaged vehicle from a safe distance, with information from a police officer detailing the events and/or injuries? Or does it consist of a photograph of baby shoes surrounded by broken glass, or of a nearby dented school crossing sign, or a safety belt with blood stains on it?

And is it necessary to find a witness to tell the story for you? They can be a source of information for both investigators and reporters, but where is the fine line of integrity with a witness? And is a witness’ character judged by their sensible report, or rather by the quirky behavior and colorful language that may instill more viewers or readers?

Will all of the above tell the same news story? Technically, yes. The integrity is in the how.

An example: A pickup truck collides with a train at E. Blue Lick Road. The intersection of the accident is just north of the train derailment site, although the accident occurred well over a year after the derailment.

In my story, the lead sentence said something like, "The driver of a pickup truck received minor injuries after colliding with a moving train." Meanwhile, another news source began the same story with this line: "A truck collided with a train today near the scene of a fiery train derailment in Brooks."

Fiery?

The train derailment had nothing to do whatsoever with the accident, other than proximity of location. But, as any journalist other than me will tell you, you have to sell. So the words "fiery train derailment" probably earned more hits on the ol' Internet.

Take a recent news story involving a pet chimpanzee that attacked its owner's friend and had to eventually be shot and killed by police.

I'll never forget that morning, primarily because I lost track of the numerous descriptions of the attack on television. News stations were peppering me with words like viciously, brutally, savagely attacked. If a chimpanzee overdosed on Xanax and then attacked a human being, are those fluffy adverbs necessary?

As any journalist besides me will tell you, yes. But why?

Simple answer: Ratings. The television monster is different than the newspaper, because it's live. Their primary focuses are speed and ratings. They fly their helicopters over crime scenes where there is nothing to see (while the viewers pay for high-priced gas during a recession) and they like to park "mobile news units" with giant satellite dishes in the epicenter of pending news scenes, with little regard for “no parking” signs.

Occasionally, if it doesn't interfere with speed and ratings, their stories include facts.

Newspapers are different. Not necessarily better, but different. And with the Internet age not as much. A different speed (we call it a deadline) and different ratings persist.

With the Internet comes the Web site, a tool used by all media as well as people or organizations declaring themselves as media with blogs that allow them to spew any wording of their choosing into the vast wasteland of cyberspace where it then becomes assumed fact.

Web sites allow for even further competition, meaning that those who chose the journalism field must now double their efforts to make an online version of their product in conjunction with their established medium.

Unlike traditional telecommunications, there are somewhat different processes allowed on the Internet. The absence of set criteria and regulations allow any site to shoot for better success via their number of hits, or visits to that particular Web site.

On The Pioneer News site, we do what we can. Most of the paper’s stories are there, many of the photos, a few photo galleries, a community calendar and a voting poll. Many sites include these items.

Other media have more capacity to use their sites in a way to attract further hits. Some are impressive, some are entertaining, while others stretch or eventually slip over the fine line of integrity.

And somewhere here is where I tie my ramblings back to Paul Harvey, a man who supplied the news, without turning a story into a frenzied circus. He read the news. The special wording and the storytelling and unnecessary yet entertaining side of the news came where it was supposed to, in each synopsis known as "The Rest of the Story."

Harvey's journalistic world still exists. It must exist, because I am a journalist. As long as I remain a journalist, then there is room somewhere for journalism without gratuitous shots of victims in ambulances or Web site photo galleries without dancers in undergarments or open chat forums with all sorts of deranged reader comments.   

In my journalistic world, a story is just that; it is up to a reporter to report the story as is. There are places for further commentary on the opinion page. Report the story, without superfluous details, without judgment, in as few words as possible. I will not insult readers by trying to make them think a certain way about a story. I report it; the readers are allowed to make their own judgments.

I will not take an unnecessary photograph in the name of ratings or to create my own version of events; rather, I’ll do my best to take a photograph that best tells the story.

I will do my job to the best of my ability, and respect the people involved in the story and those reading the story as much as possible. If you want gore and hype and frenzy then watch the television or read a different newspaper.

My goal as a reporter and a journalist is to instill my stories with something that gains more than ratings, controversy and awards: Integrity.

And now you know the rest of the story.

I'm Steve Thomas... Good day!