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Do the Write Thing

Community journos find the heartbeat of the community

You could say I have a love-hate relationship with news — I love producing news and being a reporter, but I hate seeing what news coverage can do to a community.

The national media honing in on Syracuse has been troubling to me: journalists are sweeping in with an attitude that says they want answers, now. An attitude that says they know what matters to the community. An attitude that says they belong in our communities.

They don’t.

Fly-in journalism is detrimental and provides nothing but a disservice for those in the communities covered. Relaying hyper-local information to a national audience should be done by those who know the community. Sometimes, it takes a little more than the nuts and bolts of a story to show how it’s going to affect the world. It takes more than a few hours on the Interstate to Syracuse to really figure it out.

I was chatting with some Newhouse students last week who said journalism students have a “starry-eyed” idea of becoming a national reporter. Making a name for yourself and covering the world’s stories, they argued, was the point of going into journalism.

After seeing the national media hounds begin their descent to cover Bernie fine, I couldn’t disagree more.

I’ve seen, first-hand, what national journalists do to a community: it can be devastating. In 2009, editors, producers and reporters from across the country, and Canada, came to western New York after a plane crashed into a suburban Buffalo home. A survivor of the crash, who made it out of the home where her father and 49 others died, was a friend of mine and a student at Brockport.

The plane crash was the epitome of unthinkable. Brockport students had a hard time understanding what happened, and how it could happen to the student, to Brockport, to Clarence.

I was an editor with the college paper, working to understand the severity of the situation while also bringing the latest news about the crash. We traveled to Buffalo where we were pitted against reporters from the AP, CNN and Canadian television stations. Reporters from the AP didn’t know either of the two survivors in the home, but I did. I could tell you how the Brockport community was reacting and what they needed to hear. That’s the benefit of being a community journalist. Community news is a form of embedded journalism. Reporters are on the frontline of what matters and why people care. It’s going to matter to them after the 5 p.m. newscast; it’s going to matter in a year, in five and in ten.

For Syracuse, the Bernie Fine situation has been our version of the unthinkable. One student remarked to me, “How can this be happening to Syracuse?” The effects of the scandal are long-reaching: the Syracuse Police Department has changed policy for sexual abuse accusers, the District Attorney’s Office now fully understands the power of their word, the media have learned from each other how to act, and react. City Hall. The courthouse. The public safety building. Carrier Dome. Marshall Street. Fine’s and Jim Boeheim’s DeWitt neighborhood. All places changed, but the national (or even regional) reporters aren’t painting that picture. They’re just drawing a sketch.

Central New York sees the benefit of community news. I hope the next wave of journalists, those who are in journalism school now, see that sometimes their starry-eyed goal isn’t all that starry.

After all, it’s one thing to have your finger on the pulse of what’s going on. It’s a whole different thing to know why that heart is beating.

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