GloucesterTimes.com, Gloucester, MA

October 12, 2013

Why Did My Newspaper Do That? A word sparks its own story

Why Did My Newspaper Do That?
Ray Lamont

---- — It was an hour in which Mayor Carolyn Kirk and challenger Mac Bell may have spoken a few thousand words — a debate that touched on city issues from the I-4, C-2 site to Fuller School and the future of the waterfront.

But when it was over, many in the room only discussed the use of one word: “retarded.”

That was the word Bell used in referring to the city’s allegedly tangled business or development permitting process, and it was a word that seemed to jump out at Tuesday morning’s Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce debate as soon as Bell uttered it.

Bell explained after the event that he certainly did not mean the term to refer to any people — that he used it in what he called the old sense of the word, suggesting that the city’s development process was being delayed or “held back” by a dense permitting system.

But he would concede later that “(it was) obviously a poor choice of words.” And debate moderator Eileen Duff followed it up with a pointed question to the candidates.

“A lot of our community, as we know, are people who are differently-abled, maybe physically and mentally challenged,” Duff said. “Do you think its important for the mayor to be someone who — in their use of language — represents those people well”?

“Without a doubt,” Kirk replied; “Yes,” Bell added.

I was there that morning as one of those posing the questions to the candidates, and I had an instant reaction to Bell’s use of the term as well: How in the world should we cover it in relation to the rest of the debate?

Working with our reporter, James Niedzinski, we decided to cover the debate as planned, spotlighting the responses of both candidates and reactions to them. But we also decided to do a separate story — a sidebar, in newsroom terms — on what, within minutes after the debate, was already the debate’s most memorable and most discussed moment. And that was how our coverage played out across the top of the front page in Wednesday’s Times, and online at gloucestertimes.com.

Did one candidate’s utterance of a single word merit a separate story? Why, you might ask, did your community’s newspaper do that?

For one thing, Bell’s use of the term really was a leading topic in the post-debate talk around the room at The Elks. And that, combined with the followup question from Duff — best known as the North Shore region’s elected representative to the Governor’s Council — certainly made it worthy of a news story.

Yet, I had another concern as well:

If we simply included the flap over Bell’s remark as one part of the overall debate, I thought there was a chance that it would take away from the coverage of the positions the candidates staked out on the various issues. And their positional differences — which are significant on many topics and approaches to city government — were really at the core of what the debate was all about.

Addressing Bell’s remark in a separate story — essentially just adding a story to our Wednesday Page 1 coverage — would give the readers insight into Bell’s remark and the reaction to it, while also giving due coverage to the debate itself. And that’s how we hope the two-story package with photos ultimately played out.

As always, let me know what you think.

Questions? Comments? Is there a topic you’d like to see addressed in a future column? Contact Times Editor Ray Lamont at 978-283-7000, x3432, or at rlamont@gloucestertimes.com.