Lessons in Journalism. . .
by Suzanne Hanney, IWPA President
Lessons in journalism, public relations and crisis management all came together for me the day I decided to cover a union protest against Wal-Mart after 5 p.m. on production day for my weekly newspaper.
The protest was scheduled for a downtown Chicago hotel where Wal-Mart was to
receive an award from a local convention group. Wal-Mart's entry into Chicago
had become a hot news item because of its non-union workforce in a city that
considered itself a labor stronghold. The city council had granted one store
to an alderman who had lobbied her peers heavily but refused another. One alderman
called it a "Death Star company" that shut down smaller neighborhood
As conventioneers from around the nation checked into the hotel, demonstrators protested the company's lack of health insurance benefits.
Because I was the only journalist there, I questioned my news judgment, yet I also knew that the groups that had sent me the press release were part of my constituency, so it was a legitimate story for me to cover.
Still, I pondered how I would get the other side of the story after hours. If I failed to do so, I worried that I would be unable to maintain a reputation for balanced reporting.
I calmed myself down and reasoned that if Wal-Mart was getting an award at a banquet during the convention, some representative of that group would have PR contact information for them.
I found the convention group's PR person and explained that I was doing a 460-word story and that I simply needed about 200 words of fair comment. I was on deadline and would finish the story within a couple of hours. Then I took the bus back.
When I arrived at my office computer, the Wal-Mart email response had already arrived. And I had the spokesperson's cell phone for follow up.
The store in the alderman's depressed ward was being built with a woman contractor who had already hired 200 workers, she wrote me. Upon completion, it would employ 300 more and the average wage in Chicagoland was $10.69 an hour.
"Our jobs come with health benefits, 401 (k), profit sharing, discounts on merchandise, dental, life insurance, etc.," as well as promote-from-within career opportunities, she said. "We also know, because we've seen in other urban areas, that our stores go a long way to revitalizing neighborhoods that have lost jobs or businesses." The company did business with small and large companies in Illinois to the tune of $12 billion a year, which supported 159,000 jobs in the state.
Wow! Check and checkmate!
As a reporter I have come to truly believe in Adam Smith's Invisible Hand: that the world does operate with each person working to his own good. The journalist's job, I feel, is to let each side explain themselves but also to probe hard enough to expose exactly where each party might also be "working to his own good."
Simultaneously, in both day-to-day public relations and full-blown crises, I have always admired the PR people who know their subjects and who give me straightforward answers.
Yet I admit, when I hear one side's impassioned take on the facts, I wait with bated breath to see if the other is on point and accurate.
Then, despite word-counting both sides to ensure equal space, I worry that each will feel I printed the best points of their opponents' arguments and not see what I did for theirs.
Such was the case on a story I covered about a union that was seeking more charity treatment as well as the right to organize within a major hospital chain, which it also accused of "racial redlining" in its capital investments. The health care chain had four suburban hospitals that were "profit centers," the union said, and termed its inner city counterparts underinvested.
The health care spokesman emailed me a lengthy response to each of his opponent's points. Its community benefits had topped $250 million one year in the form of un-reimbursed Medicaid and Medicard bills, research and education. One inner city hospital had updated its intensive care, emergency and obstetrics units and some of the urban hospitals were operating at a loss.
The chain was open to union organizing, he wrote, but it had refused to give the union names and addresses of employees on the grounds that it was an invasion of their privacy. Since then, the union had "subjected us to a barrage of criticism that was not their view of us when they wanted to partner with us," he said.
I fretted that the union would say the hospital had gotten the last word.
But no, I had been "fair," their email said.
And that was enough for me.