On a summer trip to Maine, I took in the standard (lobster, shopping at an outlet store) and the unusual (a Federal Communications Commission hearing), which shows you how warped my sense of vacation is.
The FCC public hearing on “localism” was a coincidence: I noticed a public service announcement in the Portland Press Herald two days before the hearing.
“Reporting on local and state government, our industries, community affairs or emergencies,” the newspaper wrote in an unusual PSA/editorial, “should share a common thread — it must reflect a local perspective.
“Media consolidation, including the concept of localism, isn’t a partisan issue. It’s an issue of importance to people from across the full spectrum of political ideologies …
“The media should provide in-depth coverage of local politics and community affairs. News generated solely from other places or national news that lacks a local perspective doesn’t serve our needs.”
As I drove through Portland looking for the hearing, one of several the FCC has conducted across the country, I thought about the ethical aspects of covering a community well.
We strive to be accurate and fair, of course. We try to be sensitive in telling stories of grief. We don’t take sides in news stories.
But are those basics enough?
Don’t we have a duty to find stories that matter to our readers, not just stories that fall into our e-mail in-baskets?
Mustn’t we try to understand the intricacies of our local cities, towns and neighborhoods and report news that affects them the most?
Under the heading of “Seek Truth and Report It,” the SPJ Code of Ethics urges journalists to:
l Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
l Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
The newspaper notice said the hearing would run from 4 to 11 p.m., but I expected Portland High School to be locked and dark when I got there at 9 p.m.
Instead, most of the auditorium was full. I had missed hours of panel discussions, but the public comment portion was just starting to roll.
Right away, I heard, many times, media executives trumpeting their companies’ fundraising efforts.
One radio general manager talked about his station raising $1,500 for a food bank when its diesel fuel was stolen. A media official mentioned scholarships his news organization gives out, and another talked about collecting money for sick children.
These were nice gestures for a business — a local bank or grocery store might do the same things — but they said nothing about news coverage, which is a media organization’s reason for being.
Critics seized on this. One urged local media not just to raise money for breast cancer, but to look at how it happens. And not to merely help the homeless, but examine the root causes of their predicaments.
As more than 100 people spoke, two minutes at a time, well past midnight, I was impressed with what I had heard about low-power radio and public access TV.
It sounded like Portland, and other parts of New England, could hear minority and underserved voices and ideas outside the norm. (Disclosure: A member of the SPJ Ethics Committee works for Maine Public Broadcasting Network.)
Some speakers made jabs about the high percentage of outside media ownership in Portland, with the Press Herald standing as a main exception.
The bigger question for any media company, though, is its commitment to covering its community. Will it hire a full staff? Will it watch local government bodies closely? Will it report on issues, not just crashes and press releases?
In my motel room, after the hearing, I turned on a rebroadcast of a local TV news program, looking for its report on the FCC hearing.
But first, at the top of the hour, was a breathless account of a man on the loose. Police were looking for him (I saw the squad cars fly by earlier as I stopped for dinner). He had hit another man on the head with a gun.
Was that the biggest news in Portland that day? Or the easiest to report?