Crossing the street

Parents know they have to let the kids cross the street by themselves sooner or later.

We know that we have to trust them to look both ways, walk quickly, and not stop in the middle of the road to look at something.  And then we have to trust them to behave when they get to the other corner without us.

Reporters are parents, too, and sometimes parental instincts figure in to the way we play a story.

Such is the case with this week’s word that Wilson Nixon, the governor’s 21-year old-son, has been arrested in Columbia for possessing less than 35 grams of marijuana, a misdemeanor. Thirty-five grams is about one-third of one ounce. Another student, Nickolas Morehead, also was arrested.

The story has drawn more than the usual attention because of who the parents are of one of those arrested.

Dealing with stories about the children or other relatives of prominent people sometimes gives reporters a little discomfort. At least around here they do. A long time ago we decided two basic questions need to be asked in any story involving the relative of a well-known person.

  1. Would we run the story if the person in trouble were not tied to the prominent relative?
  2. Did the relative have anything to do with the things the relative is in trouble for doing?

Decades ago we confronted this issue for the first time when the son of a well-known attorney in the town where we worked was charged with going into a cemetery with some buddies one night and knocking over dozens of old tombstones. Was it necessary to say in our story that “17-year-old so-and-so, son of prominent local attorney father so-and-so, has been charged with this or that?” We would have run the story anyway because of the issue involved. But was it necessary to mention who his father was? Should we mention the father’s name because the listener is going to hear the son’s name and wonder if this kid is related to the prominent lawyer? And shouldn’t we answer that question if there are several families with that name in the town? If the answer to the last question is yes, where does that take you? If the offending teenager is not the son of the prominent attorney do we say, “So and so is not related to prominent attorney father so and so?”

After all we don’t want our listeners thinking things about the fitness of the father as a parent if there’s no reason for the listeners to do so. Years ago we ran the story about the cemetery incident and we mentioned the names of the kids involved but we did not say anything about who the father was of one of the boys. We wouldn’t mention the parentage of any of his buddies, so why would we mention his? And what did he have to do with the incident? Nothing.

It can be argued that the issue morphs somewhat depending on the public visibility of the parent. A governor is certainly a more visible person that a prominent local attorney. Is that a justification for linking the arrest of two college students for having a small amount of marijuana to the famous parent? Refer to question one earlier in this blog. Would the reporter run the same story saying only, “Two University of Missouri students have been charged with having a small amount of marijuana in their room?” Does that sentence even rise to the level of a story or is it just a line or two that otherwise would appear in the “police reports” column?

And by the way, who are the parents of Nickolas Morehead and why aren’t they mentioned in the story? Perhaps they should be mentioned too. Parental embarrassment is not reserved only for prominent parents. And if parents are an integral part of the story, shouldn’t there be equal treatment? Or are they integral parts of the story at all?

Reporters ask themselves all the time, “Is this news?”

A lot of personal and professional experiences help us answer the question and knowing that the rightness or wrongness of our decision will be determined by the people who read or hear or see our stories. Sometimes our own parenthood is part of the argument because we know that even well-known parents have to let the kids cross the street by themselves sooner or later.

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