Even in ‘news features,’ journalists should take a deep look at their subjects

01/19/2014 10:23 PM

01/19/2014 10:23 PM

The Kansas City Star publishes a variety of types of stories, from short news briefs to lengthy investigative projects. But I’ve found that what’s known in the industry as a “news feature” can be confusing or problematic to some readers.

A news feature can be a profile of a person or company, a historical account, or a look at a broad topic illustrated with examples.

Many times, these features are “feel-good” journalism, telling tales with happy endings. But in some instances, readers have wondered whether the choice of certain topics are appropriate for positive coverage because of events that happened in the past.

Here I will be vague: Several years ago, I received a call from a man who had read a story in The Star about a woman who spends a great deal of time making items that she donates to a local charity. My caller told me to look at coverage in The Star from the late 1980s, when the woman went by a different last name. She had been convicted of tax fraud and sentenced to a short time in prison. Should the paper be writing about her current good deeds without mentioning her past crime?

In a more recent example, I got email last Friday from a man who had read a long feature story that had run earlier in the week online and in the 816 North news magazine about McCormick Distilling Co. in Weston. It looked at the company’s product line, environmental programs and its “Country Store” on Main Street. Its overall focus was the company’s profile in the small town where it is a prominent presence.

The feature omitted one key detail to my emailer’s mind: a smuggling scandal from over a decade ago.

McCormick pleaded guilty in early 2000 to a misdemeanor charge of falsifying liquor export documents after a federal investigation showed the company had smuggled grain spirits to Eastern Europe and Russia disguised as cleaning fluids and mouthwash.

The company paid $1 million in restitution and a $10,000 fine. A subsequent lawsuit by a minority shareholder sought to dissolve the company, and was settled under undisclosed terms in 2002. It was the subject of many stories in The Star during this period.

In both these cases, the readers contacting me with their objections weren’t disinterested parties. The first man was the tax dodger’s former husband, and the second works for a competing liquor company.

I think both these questions are fair game, even if there is no single pat policy. But it’s clear and obvious that reporters working on features should check out their subject’s pasts for any evidence of criminal or other questionable activity.

The journalists who worked on the story from years ago were unaware of the charity worker’s conviction because of her name change. The editor of the McCormick feature did know about the smuggling scandal.

Here, I don’t think the histories were especially germane because of the amount of time that had passed and particularly because the tax fraudster had paid her debt to society.

Context is important, though. If the woman in the first example were volunteering as a bookkeeper, or if the McCormick story purported to be a corporate history, then we’d be having a different discussion.

No report, regardless of length or depth, can ever tell the whole story. Journalists should still take a deep look at their subjects, even if the final story isn’t quite so serious.

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