By David Loomis
INDIANA – At the advent of Sunshine Week, a former Media Law & Ethics student emailed to ask about a March 5 news item published in ExploreJefferson.com, a local news website serving the student’s hometown of Punxsutawney. The 174-word police-blotter item was generating heated comment on the news site and on Facebook.
Was there something libelous or unethical about the story, the former student asked?
Not a bit. But reader reaction reflected a bigger issue, timely for this week’s annual news-industry observance of the First Amendment and a free press: The headline on the Associated Press story in Sunday’s Indiana Gazette captured it: “Analysis: Town by town, local journalism is dying in plain sight.”
IN PUNXSUTAWNEY, the news item, headlined “Police Searching for Jefferson County Underwear Bandit,” reported a theft of more than $1,000 worth of underwear, bras and other items from a Jefferson County home. The information was attributed to state police in Punxsy. A posting on Facebook included an image of black Victoria’s Secret panties.
The item sparked 72 comments in five days.
Some readers saw humor.
“I feel bad for the victim but the headline is funny,” wrote one. “Spending that amount of money on undergarments is crazy.”
The commenter volunteered, “I will spend $20 for a good Playtex bra but cringe at the thought of paying more than $10-12 for a package (5 or more pair) of underwear.”
Another commenter shamed (this was social media, after all) those who made light.
“This isn’t a joke. This isn’t funny & it’s not a game,” the commenter wrote. “There is a sick individual out there.”
The writer also shamed the news site for sensationalizing.
“Shame on you, ExploreJefferson for blasting an article with such an immature & belittling title,” the commenter wrote.
Echoed another: “You’re making light of breaking and entering and theft. Disgusting.”
Wrote another commenter: “The headline and photos for this article are extremely insensitive. [M]akes it sound like a joke, when in reality it’s actually terrifying.”
DID ExploreJefferson.com libel somebody? Nope.
Even if the paper had named the people whose stuff was stolen, it would not have been libelous. Private figures generally enjoy greater protection under libel law. But if police or other authorities release the information, well established court precedents say newspapers are free to publish it under the First Amendment.
These press freedoms have been strengthened by courts over the past 100 years. Donald Trump says he wants to “open up” libel laws. Problem 1: Libel is mostly a state matter. Problem 2: The U.S. Supreme Court reflects bipartisan support for the First Amendment.
Was ExploreJefferson unethical to publish the headline about the purloined Punxsy panties? Hardly. Compared to the alternatives (see previous sentence), it was restrained. Moreover, a crime was committed, according to the state police. Residents might appreciate an alert about a potential threat to public safety.
Humor may offend the burglary victims. But the code of professional ethics that news media have followed for a century advises publishers to balance the public’s need to know against private figures’ potential discomfort. Whenever possible, discomfort should be minimized — in this case, by protecting the anonymity of the victims.
The contentious comments might remind more detached readers of the 1993 Bill Murray flick “Groundhog Day,” about an insensitive TV weatherman caught in a time loop in Punxsutawney for the eponymous annual event featuring its celebrated rodent. Readers’ criticism of their local newspaper can sound like a loop, too. That’s the sound of a community talking to itself where communities by some measures increasingly lack such forums. And the comments reflect the news media axiom that if they are riling readers on both sides, they must be doing something right.
IF LOCAL JOURNALISM IS DYING, as the AP analysis asserts, then the obituary for print newspapers may be premature. Metropolitan daily newspapers – The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal – have found ways to expand circulation and make money online. If local newspapers follow the recipe, they, too, may revive.
Or maybe they will follow a different template in this crucible of news-media experimentation and innovation. Exhibit A: Hilde Lysiak, age 12, enterprising publisher of the Orange Street News in Selinsgrove, Pa. The pre-teen’s aggressive investigative reporting – which recently led her to the Mexican border — has netted a book deal and a TV deal, along with an expanding readership of her local newspaper.
Meanwhile, in Punxsy, one of the comments on the panties-bandit item praised ExploreJefferson.com.
“Whether the headline offends you or you find it hilarious… You’re all talking about it. The story is being shared, commented, and we are all well aware of the situation as it floods our newsfeeds. Successful marketing! ✔️ Great job to the Explore team!!”
David Loomis, Ph.D., emeritus professor of journalism at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, is editor of The HawkEye.
The HawkEye invites comments on this and other issues of community interest. Email firstname.lastname@example.org