Pass around the bullhorn: All viewpoints are welcome

By Sean Miner
Sun Current Newspapers

A few weeks ago, I covered a town hall-style event at Mount Olivet Lutheran Church in Plymouth, as part of my beat covering the Third Congressional District. Some 600 people filled the church, hoping to have a conversation with (or at least about) the district’s congressman, Rep. Erik Paulsen (R-Eden Prairie).

Mr. Paulsen had previously told the event’s organizers he was unavailable that evening, and did not attend. The event mainly consisted of the attendees voting – by way of colored cards handed out to each of them – whether they agreed or disagreed with several recent actions taken by their representative.

I saw, and photographed, some half dozen of these votes. Green cards signified agreement, while red cards expressed disagreement. Vote after vote, very few green cards were hoisted into the air.

From that, and other cues from that evening, I can say that the crowd who showed up for this “with or without you” town hall leaned (if not careened) to the left side of the political spectrum. I noted this ideological imbalance in my article, and included some of my discussion about it with the event’s host, Plymouth resident Kelly Guncheon.

In the two weeks that followed the publication of that story, I received several emails, some forwarded along from editors of other papers in the 3rd District who had run the story as well, from readers taking issue with the coverage in one way or another.

I’m of the opinion that thin skin is not a becoming or helpful quality for anyone, certainly no less for a journalist. I, for one, earnestly welcome constructive criticism. It’s extremely valuable, given how important our relationships with our readers are.

I don’t mean to paint these correspondences with one broad brush, but I also won’t be diving into each one specifically.

Several questioned the newsworthiness of the event, given how ideologically imbalanced it was. Some accused the newspaper, or me directly, of partisanship or something similar for covering it.

One reader asked whether 600+ conservatives gathering for a similar event would attract my attention, or warrant coverage to me. I don’t think I was amiss in inferring that the reader was suggesting that such an event wouldn’t make the pages of my newspaper.

It would. Or, more realistically, I would want it to, and I would personally want to make specific efforts to report on such a gathering. I’ll get to why that’s a statement I feel the need to qualify like that in a moment.

First, I want to stress that I did not cover that event because of the people who attended it. I didn’t know, driving up to Plymouth that evening, who those attendees would be, how many would be there, and how many red cards would be held up versus green.

Even after getting a read on the aggregate political slant of the group, that event was significant because hundreds (by some estimates, 1,000 to 2,000) people showed up to have their voices heard. Had the event’s attendees been homogeneously composed of 600+ people of any conceivable ideological stripe, it still would have been warranted coverage, barring those voices spewing hate speech or the like.

I do realize, however, that writing an article about an event like this and quoting its attendees amplifies the viewpoints at hand. I can’t pretend that reporting on a person’s voice doesn’t push their words through a megaphone via the newspaper.

That’s what we want to do — but not with just one side of the spectrum. The idea should be that everyone’s views are welcome, because we should be able to engage in a dialogue about these things.

It’s worth pointing out that we can’t cover everything, however, due to a number of constraints. Two of them should be familiar for everyone: money and time.

There’s another constraint that’s fairly specific to this line of work, however: If I don’t know about an event, I can’t cover it.

Now, I won’t pretend for a second that my charge as a reporter doesn’t include having my ear, nose or whatever other sense organ to the ground, trying to scope out every story I can. However, I cannot overemphasize the importance of the community in that endeavor.

I can monitor Twitter, attend government meetings and police briefings and put in other proactive efforts, but I still, definitely, will not know about everything that’s happening, especially not in advance. I don’t have hard numbers for this, but a significant chunk (some weeks, the majority) of the articles I write happen solely because one of our readers picked up the phone or typed out an email. We rely on tips and heads-ups more than readers might expect — and that goes for journalists of any stripe.

So, tell me what’s happening. If I do something you like, hey, I’d love to hear about it — but, and I earnestly mean, not as much as if I do something you don’t like. Write me letters. Send me emails. I might be part of a stereotypically phone-call-averse generation, but I actually do want you to call me, too.

Consider this column me officially handing the bullhorn around.

Contact Sean Miner at [email protected]