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Published: Sunday, 1/6/2013

Blade’s check of school security was solid journalism

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

Was The Blade unethical in the way it reported on local school security after the Connecticut elementary school massacre?

Following that tragedy that took the lives of 27 people, the newspaper decided to look into security procedures at local schools.

Reporters were sent to area schools in northwest Ohio and the nearby area of Michigan to see if they allowed strangers to enter the buildings. Their findings were reported in the paper on Dec. 19.

The story revealed that school security varied widely. Most schools had doors that were locked; some didn’t. One of those which had locked doors buzzed a reporter in without asking who she was.

Walter Edinger thought that having the reporters do this was highly unethical and appalling. “The week following the worst tragedy in American school history, an event that devastated and frightened parents around the country, The Blade decided to try and sneak into area elementary schools to get a story … This is not responsible journalism. I am ashamed of The Blade reporters and their lack of journalistic ethics. You should be ashamed of yourselves,” he wrote.

Without a doubt, few events in recent history have left the nation’s nerves as raw as the shooting that killed 20 small children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

But was there anything wrong with the way The Blade reported this story? In your ombudsman’s view, not in the least.

Indeed, had the reporters attempted to “sneak” into the schools, that would have been ethically questionable, or worse.

But they didn’t do anything like that.

They walked up to the schools and openly tried to enter.

If asked who they were, they said they were reporters from The Blade and asked to interview the principal about school security.

All wore ID badges with their pictures showing they were reporters and photographers. (By contrast, Mr. Edinger’s letter to me did not mention that he is a member of the Perrysburg school board.)

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, was the editor who decided to have reporters check out the security of area schools.

“I’m a parent and grandparent and like so many others felt so helpless after 20 little children were gunned down by a madman with an assault rifle. One of the first things I wondered was how easy it would be for someone to do the same thing at elementary schools in the Toledo area,” Mr. Murray said.

“When we found that a school had inadequate security [and] allowed strangers to enter the school unchallenged we reported that in a Page One story the next day. Our children’s lives are too important to worry about offending a few school officials who were embarrassed by their inadequate security measures,” he said.

Kurt Franck, The Blade’s executive editor, added that this wasn’t done lightly. “We actually debated the story among key editors,” he said, realizing some readers might be offended.

But “in the end, we decided to come down on the side of providing people with what we feel is important information.

“Pointing out flaws and raising awareness can only make the schools safer, we felt,” Mr. Franck added.

Your ombudsman couldn’t agree more. I think The Blade’s reporting of the story was in the best tradition of fine public service journalism. It is important to note, as the story did, that the doors were locked at Sandy Hook school; the gunman apparently shot through the windows and got into the school that way.

But not every would-be wrongdoer is as prepared.

By the way, I have to correct something else that Mr. Edinger said. Terrible as it was, Sandy Hook was not “the worst tragedy in American school history.” That happened in the Michigan town of Bath, near Lansing, in 1927, when a deranged farmer wired explosives into the local elementary school, killing 38 children and six adults.

Murder and insanity are not modern inventions.

Moving on to the editorial page. … Reader Alan Buck wrote to ask, “Many times I want to respond to the op-ed articles in The Blade, but the three leading editorials never disclose any specific author. Who actually writes those articles? Are they the opinion of The Blade or just the belief of one reporter?

That is a very good question, and I think sometimes we in the newspaper business forget that not everyone knows our ways.

Editorials are not signed because they are the policy positions of the newspaper itself — of the editorial board and the Publisher and Editor-In-Chief John Robinson Block. They have different authors and are often a collaborative effort between more than one writer.

The person responsible for the editorial and opinion section is David Kushma, the editor of The Blade. It is also important to note that Mr. Kushma has absolutely no responsibility for or involvement in what is published in The Blade’s news sections.

Nor does Kurt Franck, the executive editor in charge of news, have any control or even knowledge of what positions The Blade‘s editorial page will take — and neither do his reporters and editors.

An anonymous reader wrote to question the editorial page’s policy of publishing only one letter a month from each reader.

“If a letter writer can present a relevant, well-prepared letter more frequently, why adopt such a restrictive policy?” the reader asked.

Mr. Kushma‘s response: “Our vision of the Readers’ Forum is that it is a community conversation that exists for the benefit of the readers, not the letter writers.

“We think it works best when we expose our readers to the broadest possible array of viewpoints and voices.” That doesn’t mean, he added, that someone can’t send more than one letter a month for consideration, “and a number of writers do just that.”

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610; or email me at OMBLADE@aol.com. I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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