If you work in a newsroom, you will deal with controversy. Reporting on controversial issues fairly and accurately is an important part of our work. Writing about such topics stirs others to join the conversation, allowing the news organization to serve its role as a public forum for discussion. As editors, you should never shut an issue because it is controversial; rather, you should consider whether you have an obligation to explore and bring transparency to the matter via your journalism.
Another kind of controversy – that of our own making – sometimes happens, too. It can best be avoided by taking extra care and caution before publication to avoid errors, limit unintended interpretations and strike the right tone for the matter at hand.
ANTICIPATE CONSEQUENCES: The First Amendment protects the right of the editor-in-chief to publish that they choose, including material that is offensive, vulgar or even libelous. But it does not protect you from the consequences. The editor-in-chief is ultimately responsible for every word or image The Daily publishes. It is their duty to make the tough decisions on whether to publish, and it is the duty of every desk editor keep the editor-in-chief fully informed about coverage that is potentially controversial. When informed, the editor-in-chief must examine the matter in depth, question all involved, consult with the editorial board and adviser before making a final decision. There may be good reason to run controversial or offensive material. This process of examination and discussion will help editors be prepared for whatever fallout may come.
EDITOR’S NOTE: If you are certain something will be controversial but you deem it necessary to publish, consider running an editor’s note explaining your decision. Readers may not agree, but they will at least understand your decision.
FALLOUT: Be prepared. The first calls or emails of complaint typically go to the person whose byline was on the piece. Staffers always may answer reader questions about their work, but they should never apologize, make promises or engage in debate. If the audience member seems unsatisfied, the staffer should pass the conversation to the editor-in-chief. The editor should engage the matter promptly. Ultimately, be sure to let the complaining party know your decision, whatever it may be.