What Dunkirk and To Kill A Mockingbird taught me about the media
I should admit something. In an age of opinion-based news articles, spin, and consequently, distrust, it's taken me one year to realize my role as editor of your local newspaper.
When I began last year, I focused on headlines that would grab the attention of readers. Of course, that led to a phone call one early morning from the sheriff's office back in April. I'd printed a headline in theWeekly and inThe Chief about "Ascension Officers involved in abuse and cover-up."
While the headline suggested officers from APSO were involved, if one had read the article they would easily distinguish that it had solely to do with correctional officers at Elayn Hunt Correctional Center who just happened to live in our parish. But so often, in today's culture the headline is all that most people read. I know that, and I realized some damage had been done. Not that it was easy, but I admitted my wrong to Chief Deputy Webre and apologized. We became friends again. After that, I focused on a more straightforward approach to headlines with no trickery, whatever the consequences may be.
While I've remained true to that for the last ten months, today I'm having all these strange emotions. I'm angry at Trump for bashing the media, calling it "fake news." Not because I don't think the term "fake news" has relevance (in many instances), but because I'm interested in how it affects our readership, and the trust that exists between me and the people of Ascension Parish.
That includes Donaldsonville, Gonzales, Sorrento, Prairieville, Geismar, Dutchtown, Acy, Darrow, Lake, Galvez, St. Amant, and a few more communities with unique traits.
What do I do when I'm confused? I pray. I prayed for weeks that God would show me the truth. After all, the truth is difficult to see sometimes. Here is what happened through prayer:
I finally read "To Kill A Mockingbird." Naturally, I paid close attention to the character of Mr. Underwood, the local newspaper editor. He was explained to rarely or never write his own stories. AllThe Maycomb Tribune articles come from submissions by people in the community. Since he is a one-man news team, who lives in the building above his office and next to the courthouse, when he sees criminals going into jail he simply pokes his head out of the window to get the arrest report.
But Underwood is also portrayed as a particularly noble man. At one point in the novel, lawyer Atticus Finch is sitting outside the jail at the courthouse late at night. He is there to protect Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of rape, from any lynch mob.
The mob shows up. The situation is eventually stabilized, and we find that Mr. Underwood has been sitting in the shadows on his balcony with a loaded shotgun. Just in case the lynch mob's antics would've escalated to actual violence, he had Finch and Robinson's back the whole time.
Underwood is said to be an autobiographical character for author Harper Lee, lending the portrayal of Underwood credence. Lee's own father was at some point a newspaper editor.
Next, over the weekend I watched the 2017 version of the movie "Dunkirk." I really felt touched by the role of the local newspaper that was offered.
"Dunkirk" is about a WWII rescue effort by the British to save 300,000 French and British soldiers who'd retreated from the Nazis and had become stuck on the shores of the coastal French city, Dunkirk. The British Navy asked civilians to lend up their sailboats and fishing boats for the mission to get these troops back to Great Britain.
The movie follows a storyline of a civilian who decides he will captain his own vessel, a luxury sailboat, into the war zone. He travels to Dunkirk with two teenaged boys, his own son and his son's friend. His son's friend becomes badly wounded in the course of the action. In his dying breath he laments that his dad once told him he'd never do anything special with his life, but that he replied he would do something special one day and be in the newspaper.
The civilian captain and his son end up rescuing a bunch of soldiers after that unfortunate event and return to Britain safely. Once home, the civilian captain's son brings a photo and the story of his friend's heroism to the local newspaper. The editor publishes it on the front page, and it is then delivered to the boy's father.
After simmering on Mr. Underwood from "To Kill A Mockingbird" and this "Dunkirk" storyline, it all cooked into itself. I remembered praying that God show me the truth, and asking what my role is as the local newspaper editor.
Is it to spin headlines? To stir up muck and encourage distrust towards local leaders for the advertising revenue? Everyone else seems to be doing it this way. Considering the current media climate, one might think so. But that is absolutely not my role, even though it can be difficult to see.
I cannot deny finding my role in that novel or in that film. My role is to inform, rather than spin. And furthermore it is to recognize our people for their heroics, and for their success, and sometimes for their folly.
I'm grateful to reach this understanding. I hope others catch on quickly so we may restore a good name to journalism. Please reach out to us if you have a story to tell. Let us know if someone or something deserves community recognition. Call 225-644-6397, or just stop by.