An Isthmus colleague who sits within earshot has often heard me doing triage with callers on the phone, weighing whether and when it makes sense to write about a given situation. He suggests this might make a good column topic. Maybe he's right.
In fact, I've made a specialty out of stories based on the experiences and concerns of ordinary people. It's the most important part of my job.
But as often as not, when someone comes to me with an idea, I decide against taking it on. At times people are angered, but usually they agree with my reasoning, once I explain it. These are the conversations my colleague overhears.
Whether or not you ever turn to the media for help, it may be useful to see how I perceive our role, and its limitations. Here, then, is my list of things to keep in mind when approaching the press.
1. Media are not good arbiters of disputes. You may think you're completely right and others are completely wrong, but we probably won't reach the same conclusion. We don't look at complex situations and throw someone's arm in the air, declaring him or her the winner. That's what judges and juries do; journalists are supposed to be fairer. You may not like what we report because we'll let others have their say, same as you.
2. Accusations are not enough. So you were wrongly terminated? The cops beat you up? Your doctor engaged in malpractice? It doesn't matter what you say. Nobody, including me, is going to take your word for it. You need clear evidence or a witness - someone who is not you or a member of your family, ideally someone with something to lose, willing to come forward on your behalf. The burden of proof is on you, not those you accuse.
3. It may be best to shut up. I often hear from people facing what they feel are wildly unfair criminal charges, seeking coverage. I ask them to check whether their lawyers think this a good idea. I never hear from them again. On rare occasions a lawyer may speak on a client's behalf, but most will discourage clients from talking to the press - in part because the justice system may exact revenge. And don't tell me, as people often do, that things cannot possibly get any worse; the first rule of life is that they can.
4. Talk is cheap. It's not a news story to say you're going to sue someone, or file a complaint. It might not even be a story if you do, depending on the particulars, but it's a lot easier to say you're going to do something than actually do it. If no lawyer will take your case, maybe it's not as meritorious as you think. And don't expect me to raise issues you aren't willing to be quoted on. You might want to remain anonymous because you're lying. Ever think of that? I do.
5. Official outcomes matter. Judges and juries - and regulatory agencies and oversight panels - reach wrong conclusions all the time. But those conclusions hold sway over how your story will be perceived. If someone in power has ruled against you or rejected your complaint, that's a huge strike against you. Most readers don't want to believe terribly unfair things happen to others for no good reason; they'd rather believe the system got it right. And yes, taking a plea deal means you can't later protest your innocence, even to me. Sorry.
6. I'm not on your side. I was horrified a few years back when a local TV station launched a consumer advocacy feature called "On Your Side." That's not what journalism is about. We're not supposed to take sides; we tell all of them. Yes, I strive to be fair and accurate, and I'll often work cooperatively with sources, checking quotes and such. But my obligation is to the story, not to any one person's perspective.
7. The problem might just be you. Not everyone sees the world fairly and accurately. I hear surprisingly often from people who think vast numbers of others - from their landlords to the CIA - are conspiring against them. Sometimes I say: "If you're right and the rest of the world is wrong, maybe there's a simpler explanation." Never once have these persecuted souls conceded that this is possible. I don't have the luxury of such certainty. While I'll pass on these stories, part of me always wonders if maybe they're right.