Jerry Davich: Media attention can come with a backlash
JERRY DAVICH February 15, 2014 11:38PM
Photo of Samantha Borders, an employee at JC Penney in Southlake Mall in Hobart. | Jerry Davich~Sun-Times Media
What is news? What is newsworthy? And who should be in the news?
I’ve been pondering these million-dollar questions after writing several columns that, collectively, begged for answers, a definition or at least an explanation.
Is “newsworthy news” strictly the daily coverage of public meetings, local events and high-profile incidents? Police blotter items? Investigative watchdog stories? Community happenings? Murder, mayhem, corruption and controversy? All of the above?
Or, as a journalism professor once told me, “News is merely something you didn’t know earlier.”
Using that broad definition, many of my columns merely border on “news,” because I tend to aim more for viewpoint, context and perspective. This, I contend, is my job as a columnist.
If I have one consistent complaint about newspaper stories, dating back to before I got into this business in 1995, it’s that too many of them are as exciting as an empty mailbox. Or a bucket of dust. Or a tax preparation seminar.
Still, it doesn’t stop readers from clamoring to be in the newspaper for countless reasons — self-serving publicity, justice of some kind, 15 minutes of proverbial fame, to right a wrong, you name it.
Some of those readers who get into the newspaper (or receive other media attention) soon regret their decision even though, even seconds afterward, it’s like trying to put toothpaste back into its tube.
For example, take the recent column involving Jennifer Carmin, who attracted media attention for her slot machine’s malfunction at Blue Chip Casino in Michigan City. The 39-year-old Hobart woman believed she had possibly won $28 million, only to later learn it wasn’t true.
After my column ran, and after her appearance on ABC-TV news, Carmin told me her life had been turned upside down. “A living hell,” in her own words. Although she initially contacted me about her situation, she didn’t expect its negative outcome or reader backlash.
I ask you, was this incident “newsworthy”? Many readers said no. Other readers are still talking about it. To me, it’s a great example of a “water cooler story” that people chat about at work that day. However, is it news or nonsense?
Or take the highly publicized story of Latoya Ammons, the former Gary woman who claimed her three kids were victims of “demonic possession.” Again, is this news or nonsense?
Personally, I call it nonsense but professionally, as a columnist, I call it ideal fodder to write about. And when Ammons’ stepmother contacted me to say her extended family wanted nothing to do with her claims or publicity, it only added more fodder to the fire. So, of course, I wrote about it.
Another example is the sad case of 66-year-old Rayner Magee of Gary, who suffered from Parkinson’s disease, three strokes and gruesome bed sores before dying. His son contacted me, claiming his father was a victim of elder abuse at the hands of Magee’s wife. But family politics seeped into this story and it spiraled into a publicized mess.
In other words, not every person finds vindication through the media. Or satisfaction. Or peace of mind. Sometimes, though, a well-timed or well-intended column can do something positive.
For instance, my column about Rachel Nowaczyk, the Munster woman whose husband, David, was killed in combat in 2012. She recently started taking classes at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, thinking that her tuition would be paid by her husband’s military benefits. In short, it wasn’t paid so she contacted me.
After my column ran, she told me that IUN picked up her tuition for one semester. Coincidence? I never know for sure. Again, was it newsworthy? Did she deserve to be in the news, even if the mistake was hers? It can be a tough call.
Ideally, I enjoy writing about people who otherwise would never be in any newspaper or media outlet. Sometimes it’s to give a voice to the voiceless. Sometimes to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as the old adage goes. Other times, simply because I think they deserve a little attention, consideration or recognition.
Such as Samantha Borders, an employee at JC Penney in Southlake Mall in Hobart. The middle-aged Gary woman went above and beyond to help me find new drapes and I felt compelled to call her boss afterward to tell him so.
“She’s one of our best workers,” he replied.
Customer service is too often an oxymoron in our self-service society. Employees such as Borders should be acknowledged for their workplace efforts, I believe.
Another Gary woman also deserves recognition, albeit posthumously. Her name is Thetta Mae Dent, who died recently at age 89 after a lingering illness.
“She was very well known and a phenomenal woman, not because she was my mother but because she was a mother to many here in Gary,” said her daughter, Carolyn Mitchell.
Dent was a familiar face of hope and helpfulness in this region, mostly in north Lake County, especially for her organizing and community duties. Anyone who knew her was familiar with her boundless enthusiasm to assist others in need, from meals to housing to transportation.
“She was recognized for her smile, laugh, spunk, jazziness, struts, glamorous fashion and style, as well as her acts of accomplishments,” her daughter wrote in the eulogy.
Dent organized the 25th Place Block Club, petitioned for the paving of Gary streets, and knocked on doors most Saturdays for one cause or another. She also was a member of the NAACP, fought for civil rights, and left behind a legion of sorrowful survivors.
I could go on and on about what she meant to her city and to this region, but you get my point. I ask again, is this news? Newsworthy?
I believe it is and such mentions, for example, should also fall under the umbrella of newspaper coverage. Do you agree? Disagree? Let me know and I’ll revisit this issue.
Connect with Jerry via email, at email@example.com, voice mail, at 713-7237, or Facebook, Twitter, and his blog, at jerrydavich.wordpress.com.