Follow the pack or follow the mission?

Dec 2, 2010

Michigan Radio’s goal is to cover issues oriented news. What’s that mean? We look for stories that affect our listener’s lives, their communities, and our state. We leave the daily mayhem of crimes and fires to other media outlets, because those stories are not part of our mission.

Following that mission is not always easy.

The biggest story in Michigan this week has been the search for three missing brothers from Morenci, and the arrest of their father. John Skelton first told police he gave his three sons to a woman named Joann Taylor to take to their mother, his estranged wife, Tanya Skelton.

On Monday, Skelton recanted that story and authorities fear the worst.  

You wouldn’t know any of that from listening to Michigan Radio. Of course we know about the story, who doesn’t? But we haven’t covered it.

Not everyone in our newsroom agrees with that decision. When we talked about it the inevitable “everyone else is covering it” reasoning came up. Newsrooms can easily get sucked into pack journalism because we don’t want to look like we missed a story that everyone else is talking about.

But many of our listeners value Michigan Radio because we are NOT like their local TV news.

Of course we cover crime and violence. When a serial stabber was attacking people in Flint, we covered that story. When the “Christmas bomber” tried to blow up a plane over Detroit, we covered that story. When the FBI raided a warehouse in Detroit and fatally shot an Imam, we covered that story.

But all those stories are tied to larger issues of community safety, terrorism or potential abuse of police powers.

The story of John Skelton and his three sons is tragic and riveting, but there no larger issues involved yet.

How does this affect other communities? Is there a policy issue involved? Did any agency drop the ball?

The more questions we asked, the more this story was not a story that fit into our mission. (At least not yet, the story is far from over.)

There are plenty of stories every day that we don’t cover. We don’t have the staff or the news hole to cover it all. Part of my job is to pick which stories we cover and which ones we don’t.

It’s easy to let your reporters follow the pack, it takes more thought to tell your reporters to follow your mission.

What are your thoughts on this issue?