Editor’s note: This is a letter to the editor in response to the Oct. 21 article “Co-owner of Pandora’s, Froggs, arrested Homecoming Weekend.” Letters must be signed and submitted in a Word document to firstname.lastname@example.org. The Pendulum reserves the right to edit for length, clarity and grammar.
I know Peter. I like Peter. I eat in his restaurants, drink his beer, and have great conversations with him. I even urged him to run for local office. Peter is an alum, a great guy and a pillar of our community.
And none of that is relevant to this story. Some have suggested that this was reported because it was Peter and would never have been reported if it happened to someone we never heard of. That is probably correct. Let me explain.
There are certain news values that take something from being an everyday occurrence into the realm of news. Prominence is one. By any definition, the subject of this news story is a prominent person in our community. If you don’t believe that, a simple Google search will show you what he has done for Elon.
Normally, we would not report on a simple misdemeanor like this. Prominence changes things. If a random sophomore is arrested after walking out of Qdoba and accused of not paying, we wouldn’t report it. But if that is Dr. Lambert or Dr. Jackson — same misdemeanor charge of not paying for a burrito — that’s news. Our public needs to know what its prominent people — the movers and shakers of the community — are doing. The issue here is not so much what he allegedly did but who he is.
Not everything a prominent person does should be reported. Some of what passes for news is actually just gossip or prurient interest. We do not treat prominent people like they are a Kardashian. But when you have charges filed and a police report, you have a responsibility to report the news.
Our job is not to determine whether a charge is accurate or phony. That’s why we have courts and lawyers. Our job is to report facts without embellishment. The day we start acting as judge and jury, we are way over the line of editorializing, and we are in great trouble. As much as I like Peter, I probably would've heard this through the grapevine and would not know what the facts were. Now, I can make up my own mind about what happened and whether I think these were appropriate charges
This is what the best journalists do: They keep rumors from flying by providing the public with information from which it can draw conclusions. It is not always popular but this is not a popularity contest. On the web, people hide behind the cloak of anonymity where it is easy to be “brave” by being vicious. We are not like that. We sign our articles and packages. And we have the thick skins needed to allow anonymous mudslinging to bounce off of us.
We always need to remind the public that it is not our job to protect people, or reputations, or the university. There was a time in American journalism when powerful moguls ran newspapers, people like Hearst and Pulitzer, and they would protect their powerful friends and favored politicians. For the most part, those days are gone. That is a good thing.
We recognize that our job is to talk truth to power and to give voice to the average person in our community, the person who might not have as many defenders on Facebook. We need to keep our public informed. And we always need to be fair and accurate. That is one of many reasons we need to keep on top of this story and follow it wherever it may lead, including a story just as prominent if these charges are dropped.
Rich Landesberg is an associate professor of communications and adviser to Elon Local News.