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Readers question our judgment and style

Newspaper editors and reporters have to deal with being caught in “can’t win” situations.

Damned if we do; damned if we don’t. We’re always upsetting someone.

Report it, and we’re sensationalizing, pandering, “making the news.”

Don’t report it, and we’re part of a cover-up.

That’s OK. Journalists don’t go into this business to become popular.

But we’re always willing to explain why we did what we did.

That’s why this column exists.

LATE LAST MONTH we reported on a lawsuit filed by a former employee of the village of Lyndon.

As our story explained it, “The lawsuit contends village employees called [the plaintiff] the N-word, which the village denies.”

One reader, in an online posting to the story, objected to the euphemism.

“Really had to use ‘N-word’?” the reader asked. “We already know what it means, so just say it instead of babying the readers with this politically correct mantra. We can be adults about it.”

The editor responded with a posting that explained “N-word” is the preference of The Associated Press Stylebook, which this newspaper generally follows for the sake of consistency.

Under the entry “obscenities, profanities, vulgarities,” the AP suggests: “Do not use them in stories unless they are part of direct quotations and there is a compelling reason for them. Try to find a way to give the reader a sense of what was said without using the specific word or phrase. ...”

Such words can be offensive, regardless of context. If we can let readers know what was said without using offensive words, we almost always will.

For the record, the AP Stylebook also suggests “F-word.”

More “politically correct” language? You decide.

SPEAKING OF STYLE, a reader with a journalism background challenged a sentence we published that began with a year.

“I do not believe it is AP style or otherwise to use a number or year at the start of a sentence in a news article,” he wrote. “Instead for the third paragraph, start it with, ‘The year 1994 was ...’”

The AP Stylebook prefers that numbers be spelled out at the start of a sentence. Usually.

“The only exception is years: 1992 was a very good year,” the stylebook says.

Style manuals don’t ensure good writing. They merely seek to avoid inconsistencies that can annoy readers.

And a newspaper annoys enough readers without inconsistencies.

GORDON CALLED TO complain that a story about changes in electricity rates wasn’t on Page 1 – but a report about a divorce filing by convicted killer Nicholas Sheley was.

Which stories do – and do not – get published on the front page is a matter of judgment, a subjective decision by editors that is open to disagreement.

We cannot disagree that what you pay for power will have more impact on your life than the marital problems of a convict.

But we also would bet that the report on the Sheley divorce filing was going to be the best-read story in the newspaper that day, no matter what page we put it on.

Sheley is a local celebrity, even if an infamous one. And his behind-bars filing to dissolve his marriage is kind of an odd story.

News stories tend to be more newsworthy (a subjective term) based on the number of “news values” they have.

Both electricity rates and the Sheley divorce are “local,” an essential factor for a local newspaper like this one.

Another of those factors is “impact,” which the electricity rate report has.

But the Sheley story has the high-readership elements of “celebrity” and “oddity/bizarre.”

We made a decision. You are free to disagree.

BECAUSE WE DON’T always accept what public officials say, and we might challenge it, we get accused sometimes of “making the news.”

It happens, for example, when we disagree with the opinion of a state’s attorney on a matter of public access to government meetings or records.

Rather than just report the decision, we might ask the state attorney general to review it. We think that’s what newspapers are supposed to do, but state’s attorneys don’t always like it.

We reported last week that we have been waiting 8 months for an opinion from the AG on what we believe was a clearly illegal meeting of the Whiteside County Board.

State’s Attorney Trish Joyce disagreed with our objection in a decision she made soon after taking office, so we appealed to the attorney general.

Well, as you might already have read on page A2 of today’s edition, a decision came Friday from Springfield.

We were right.

A November meeting of board Democrats in closed session to discuss selecting a new chairman was in violation of the Open Meetings Act.

However, the AG’s office said, there are no fixes for the board to make, other than to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

We’re not sure why the decision in Springfield took so long. Several of our appeals have been decided within a few weeks.

But maybe the AG’s office has a backlog of cases these days. Our calls were not returned by the assistant AG handling the matter.

Ms. Joyce was in a difficult position, having been in office only a couple of weeks when she was asked for an opinion on the legality of a meeting involving many of her fellow Democrats, who happen also to be the people who decide her budget.

We had hoped, with the election of new state’s attorneys in the Sauk Valley last year, that we had moved past opinions about access laws that were more political than legal.

We still have that hope.

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