Courage in Community Journalism

When the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues went beyond the research stage four years ago, one of the first big things it did was to establish an award for courage, integrity and tenacity in community journalism, because it is more difficult to practice ethical, hard-nosed journalism in smaller communities than it is in big cities. We all know the reasons: personal connections, organizational obligations, business pressures and so on.

But if community journalism is to be more than the red-headed stepchild of our craft, if it is to fulfill the promise of the First Amendment for its readers, viewers and listeners, courage is essential. And one thing the Institute tries to do is lift up and exalt those community journalists who show courage – in order to inspire other community journalists and to remind the journalism community at large about the special challenges that face journalists who try to make the First Amendment a living document at the local level.

At the recent convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, we offered four case studies of courage in community journalism: A quintessentially courageous couple who have survived advertiser boycotts, social ostracism and the firebombing of their newspaper and remain a shining light in Appalachia; a reformer whom that couple inspired but succumbed to personal burnout; a daughter who lives up to her father’s legacy of courage on the plains of the Texas Panhandle; and an editor from the Bronx, who became an exemplar of community journalism in one of our largest metropolitan areas, and also suffered a firebombing.

There may be no more inspirational couple in community journalism than Tom and Pat Gish, right, the publishers of The Mountain Eagle in Whitesburg, Ky., who appeared via video. For more on the Gishes, click here.

The Gishes inspired the meteoric career of Homer Marcum, who was editor and publisher of The Martin Countian in Inez, Ky., in the 1970s and 1980s and spoke about them at the convention.

For a time in the 1980s, The Martin Countian was the most outstanding crusading newspaper in America, employing good writers and investigators. Time magazine called it one of the best and most courageous rural weeklies, and Marcum received the Eugene Cervi Award for community service from the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors. But he was at war with a local lawyer who owned a competing newspaper and kept him tied up with groundless lawsuits. And though he won a judgment for malicious prosecution of a libel suit, perhaps the first such judgment in this country, he and the lawyer finally declared a truce and sold their papers. Marcum is now spokesman for the Holston United Methodist Home for Children in Greeneville, Tenn.

The first Tom and Pat Gish Award went to the Gishes. The second went to the Ezzell family of The Canadian Record in Canadian, Tex., edited by Laurie Ezzell Brown, left, who gave convention attendees an inspiring commentary on community journalism.

Describing her first face-off with the local school superintendent, who responded to editorial criticism by saying “Your daddy wouldn’t have done it that way,” Brown recalled, “After a long, deep breath, I said, ‘Maybe not, but he would have been the first to defend my doing it that way.’ And there is the sweet kernel of truth. There is no one way, one absolute dead certain way, to do it. But there are tests of whether and how the job of community journalism must be done.

"Is it true and factual? Have I asked the right questions? Have I given the truth every chance to tell itself? Have I listened?

"Is it honest? — which, strangely, is different from truth, in that it demands a gut check, a moment of naked reckoning with oneself. Can I live with the consequences? Am I willing to accept the costs? When I am accosted in the produce section of the grocery store, bleary-eyed from lack of sleep and longing for the comfort of a home-cooked meal, can I defend it?

"Is it fair? Did I choose a truth and then find the facts I needed to support it? Or did the truth find me? When the young woman sits weeping at my desk for an hour begging me not to report the story that will change her life, can I justify what I am about to do? And when she flings rocks through my window the following night, can I walk away from anger?

"The hardest part of community journalism is also the most rewarding part. We live within what we write about. Either we know what we report, or we are called on the carpet within hours, if not minutes, to account for our mistakes. We look our stories in the face every day. We meet them eye to eye. And if we deny their humanity, if we feel no compassion, then we have failed to grasp the story’s essence, and will fail the story’s telling."

For Brown’s full remarks, click here.

Brown was followed by Bernard “Buddy” Stein, right, until recently the editor and co-publisher of The Riverdale Press, in The Bronx, N.Y. As Richard Perez-Pena of The New York Times wrote in June 2008, when he and his brother Richard sold the newspaper, “The Riverdale Press courted controversy and cast a tough, skeptical eye on local officials, who ignored the paper at their peril.”

The Press became world famous in 1989, when its office was firebombed, apparently in retaliation for an editorial defending the right to read Salman Rushdie’s controversial book The Satanic Verses. Just like the Gishes, the Steins kept publishing without missing an issue, and earned a First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists. There were many other national awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1998 for editorials written by Stein, who had twice been a finalist for the prize.

“I’m here under false colors,” Stein said, citing the courage displayed by Mississippi editors who fought for civil rights in the 1960s. (The Neshoba Democrat of Philadelphia, Miss., won this year's Gish Award for helping bring to justice a local man involved in the 1964 murders of three civil-rights workers.)

Unlike the Mississippi editors of the 1960s, Stein said, “I defied no powerful forces” by writing an editorial about the “cowardice” of chain bookstores that pulled Rushdie’s book from their shelves when Ayatollah Khomeini proclaimed a death sentence on Rushdie. But a caller told police that was the reason the Press office was firebombed.

Citizens rallied to support the newspaper, and about 100 papers in New York state reprinted the editorial. “Those publishers are the courageous ones,” Stein said. “Many of them later told me that they were frightened about the possible consequences; some said they disagreed with my editorial’s assertion that ‘Americans are fighting back in the most appropriate way possible, by reading and talking about’ The Satanic Verses. But they acted anyway, as an act of solidarity. . . . All told, it reached a million readers, surely a defeat for the terrorists.”

Stein also discussed the Hunts Point Express, a newspaper he and his students at Hunter College produce for a Bronx neighborhood, and said they are showing courage, too. For his remarks and notes, click here.

For other examples of coyrage in rural journalism, click here.

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 09/08/2008