How far is too far?
Salacious. Treating sexual matters in an indecent way and typically conveying undue interest in or enjoyment of the subject.
Moving the needle. We hear it all the time in the news business. Does what you’re reporting matter? Does it get people talking? Does it generate interest? Does it help sell more ads?
In the new media world we all live in, it is often the most disturbing, tragic and salacious material that finds its way to front pages. The old adage, “If it bleeds, it leads,” is standard operating procedure. It ups readership, which sells more ads. It moves the needle.
Wednesday’s story published by The Paintsville Herald about the resignation of Martin Childers, amid allegations made by that paper that he had participated in a pornographic film, has broken that needle. We’re not in a position to say that the Herald was wrong or right in printing the story with all the trimmings, but the story and its repercussions certainly raise a lot of questions regarding the role of journalism and how such stories should be handled.
It should be noted, that the activity that Mr. Childers is linked to is not illegal. Immoral? Disturbing? Those are questions for each person’s conscience to decide. What seems obvious is that, given his position in this community, he apparently made a serious error in career judgement. There are still unspoken turpitude laws in this neck of the woods, and some things, if brought to light, are just not going to fly.
Should Mr. Childers have been asked to resign, had the allegations against him been proven? We think so. Even accepting social liberals typically draw a line outside the porn industry. Without any bias to sexuality, that’s not a credential to flaunt on the resume of the executive director of your community theater.
But there are other, far-reaching issues at work here regarding how this story was presented. Probably the most concerning is the public “outing” of an individual in the community. We don’t know Mr. Childers well enough to know if he was living his life open with his personal preferances laid bare for the world to see. But criticism concerning outing centers on the harm that outing individuals as homosexual, transgender or transsexual does to them, personally and professionally.
In Eastern Kentucky, such criticism is well founded. Alternative lifestyles are still very much something in the periphery in the mountains. This story has likely removed any possibility for Mr. Childers to pursue a life or career in the region. Far more sinister, it has potentially put Mr. Childers in danger. Should he be the victim of a hate-crime in the next week, would the Herald bear any responsibility?
There are also issues of motive. We can only speculate on the workplace habits of Herald staff, but it seems to go without question that the story originated from a “leak” — someone who knew something that Mr. Childers had done, and took the initiative to point it out to the press. Clearly the “deep throat” behind this story wasn’t looking out for Childers’ best interests.
That being said, what to do with the story once they had it was at the discretion of the paper. Childers could have been questioned and his resignation reported, without including the salacious details, as other news outlets chose to do, including the Herald’s sister paper, the Appalachian News-Express. Childers’ alleged performance in the porn industry could have been reported without “outing” him to the public.
Again, we don’t want to second-guess another newspaper, but for our part, being an unbiased voice in the community isn’t about unnecessarily destroying a person’s life.
How this story was presented, and where it goes from here, begs the question: How far will we go to move the needle?
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