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OPINION | MASTERSON ONLINE: First Amendment reporting

by Mike Masterson | September 4, 2021 at 3:39 a.m.

During my first job out of UCA as the 22-year-old editor of the Newport Daily Independent, I was naïve and idealistic enough to believe a community newspaper should be willing to truthfully and fairly cover both the good and bad news of that community.

My philosophy was to learn and report relevant truths as best I could at the moment with no friends to favor or axes to grind. I was taught--and believed--that was an expected responsibility as a journalist practicing under protection of our First Amendment.

I never believed this sacred amendment protected members of the Fourth Estate so we could report only on the town's new playground equipment or board appointments, or become activist stenographers for government and bureaucracy.

The same attitude persists as I approach my 52nd year in the craft, the fundamental difference being I now am allowed and encouraged today to express my opinion.

Thus it did my heart good to see Huntsville's weekly paper, The Madison County Record, dive head-first into breaking the ongoing story about junior high school basketball payers sexually abusing fellow players in the locker room under the guise of performing "baptisms."

The ugly hazing consisted of holding down younger players in the locker room and placing naked genitals on and in the faces, as other teammates turned out the lights and guarded the doors. Where was the coach during the two years of such assaults? Since he's since resigned, I suspect he wasn't nearly close enough to such a revolting situation.

Unfortunately for so many similarly interconnected Arkansas towns, this sort of digging for, and revealing, truths to readers simply doesn't exist in 2021.

Unlike the basically anonymous reporting I've experienced in several metropolises, practicing what I call First Amendment journalism in such personal and close-knit environments (Huntsville's population is about 2,500 with an estimated 16,000 in the county) means publishers, editors and reporters invariably encounter the subjects of their reporting on sidewalks, at barbershops and local businesses.

I wondered if the Record's publisher and editor, Ellen Kreth, and General Manager Shannon Hahn's courageous decision to expose this scandal was difficult for them in a community where many are related or socially connected.

Kreth said her paper never considered not running this controversial series of stories. "When it was brought to us," she told me, "our first decision was when to run the story. Our job as the community newspaper is to hold our elected and government officials accountable."

She also never made the story about the students. Rather, the focus was to report on how and why the Huntsville School District and school board reacted so questionably to the allegations and greatly softened their initial recommended punishment for five youths involved.

So they broke the story only to quickly realize, if not for their reporting, the larger community would never have known of the alleged sexual assault in the school's junior high program.

"That includes many parents of students in the district," she said. "They have a right to know what goes on in their school community."

She said community members who trusted the paper and its staff brought pertinent documents to the Record in February from the resulting Title IX investigation into the sexual assaults. "Our first action was to authenticate them and seek legal counsel as to what we could publish while protecting the identity of not only the victims, but also the perpetrators."

Kreth realized the basketball season had ended when she learned of the scandal. So they waited for the school to act. "But it got complicated because the school district did not comply with the Freedom of Information Act and alert us (thereby the community) to the students' expulsion hearing.

"We then went forward with the story as soon as we learned the board had acted to lessen its punishments for the students involved.

Several community members provided information for various reasons, said Kreth. They trusted the paper to responsibly let the community know what was going on. Some coming forward included victims who wanted the story known to the community.

School board members told the paper and others in the community that the reporting made it hard on victims. "Yet the victims are the ones coming to us, saying we want to tell the community what's going on," said Kreth. They wanted the 'baptisms' to stop. If the victims didn't want the story out there, they wouldn't have told us. No one has disputed the facts of our reporting."

During several meetings, Kreth heard board members say they'd learned a lot about what went on from the paper's thorough and honest reporting. Other members labeled their stories "misinformation."

"It's not misinformation," said Kreth. "Our reporting has provided additional information that is verified and true. Board members learned a lot of additional facts and heard victims' stories from our reporting."

The publisher said that by not reporting on the scandal, her paper "would have failed the victims, their families and our community. We reported on this so that something like this won't happen again, and members of the school board are held accountable for their decisions.

"How does a community newspaper not report on something like this?" she continued. "It's our job to let the citizens know what happens in their community so that they can make informed decisions."

To this I'd reiterate, good for you. I can't help but wonder how many weeklies and even dailies across our state wouldn't have pursued and reported this controversial story or other reporting that steps on local influential toes. My guess is most of them.

Hahn, the Record's general manager for several years, has children in the school district and was instrumental in gathering information for the paper's ongoing reporting efforts.

She and Kreth clearly read from the same page when it comes to responsibility to their readers (see this newspaper's Statement of Core Values daily on page 2).

"I don't know how a community paper could hold to their obligations as an authentic news source for their area and choose to be complacent in knowing about alleged sexual assault in a boys' locker room," she said. "For me it wasn't a question of if we say something about it. The question was how to say something."

Remaining silent when a news organization has acquired such facts for me is inexcusable.

"This story is not a 3-minute soundbite or news clip. For me it plays into every arena of my life, personally and professionally. This is my community, this is my home. As the community paper, we are here, good, bad, ugly, and everything in between.

Hahn said the Record's obligation is not only the break such a story but to see it through to resolution. "We're here serve our community. To share our brightest moments, to highlight our community members and community events."

Yet sometimes, she adds, with this duty comes uncomfortable and difficult, yet necessary, conversations and topics.

"This is not about a story for us. This is about our community. Our goal has always been and always will be to do the real work and the hard work for the betterment of all of Madison County."

If you'll excuse me a moment, I believe at this point ol' Mike will rise from his seat and applaud.

Now go out into the world and treat everyone you meet exactly like you want them to treat you.

Mike Masterson is a longtime Arkansas journalist, was editor of three Arkansas dailies and headed the master's journalism program at Ohio State University. Email him at mmasterson@arkansasonline.com.

Print Headline: First Amendment reporting

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