Les Zaitz, editor and CEO of Salem Reporter.
A big rally at the Capitol is news in Salem, but how we cover them can generate a lot of heat.
Let me pull back the curtain a bit to share our decisions on covering first Timber Unity’s protest and then the echoing protest a few days later.
Timber Unity last year showed its ability to put on quite a show. The organization’s first big protest brought trucks of every description to town, and also a lot of people unhappy with what the Legislature was up to.
When the group announced a new rally, we paid attention. We could sense from social media activity that opponents were gathering around the state for a run to Salem.
For other news organizations, traffic was the news. After all, when you get hundreds of trucks streaming into town, the impact is significant.
But our news crew, including our partners at the Oregon Capital Bureau, wanted instead to focus on the people driving those trucks.
We judged that readers would be interested in learning why someone would drive hours from Malin – a potato town on the Oregon-California border – to Salem.
The cap-and-trade legislation sparking the protest is not well understood – not by elected officials, not by supporters or opponents, and not by reporters. That’s in part because the plan has shifted week to week.
That said, it’s clear that farmers and loggers and others were angry. Why?
Our team set out to answer that question several ways.
Reporter Jake Thomas got up early the morning of the rally to catch a ride with Jeremy Stinnett, a truck driver from rural Yamhill County. Thomas literally saw the world from Stinnett’s viewpoint – the cab of his Kenworth.
In the resulting story, Thomas shared with readers Stinnett’s views on climate change and politics and his work. The story (read it HERE) got beyond the sound bites and provided an account that provided context.
At the Capitol, reporters Claire Withycombe and Sam Stites fanned out, interviewing rally participants about what brought them to Salem. They found that while cap-and-trade was the cause, those they talked with had other grievances against the state, against the Legislature, and against Gov. Kate Brown. (Read it HERE.)
Clearly, the Timber Unity rally allowed Oregonians, especially from rural Oregon, to vent their unhappiness.
Some of our readers complained bitterly about our coverage, saying we were nothing but public relations tools for Timber Unity. That’s nonsense. Our coverage went beyond head counts and political taunts to help readers understand why the protesters were in town.
And it was little different the following week when Renew Oregon, an environmental advocacy group, staged its own rally at the Capitol.
This one was significantly different. There weren’t long caravans flowing along Interstate 5 ahead of the rally. The attendance was smaller, though no less passionate.
Our reporting strategy was the same: Let’s focus on the people.
Again, our reporting team fanned out to talk to those holding signs, making speeches and marching around the Capitol. What brought you here? What do you want to happen?
The rally drew retirees and activists and students. Maia Stout, 15, from Yachats, told what worries her about the future of the climate. (See the story HERE.)
Reporting these views doesn’t mean we endorse the views or want to promote them. Instead, we hope to get people to listen to each other with a touch more understanding. In today’s political environment, it strikes me that people more and more are talking past each other, not to each other. Considering the other person’s viewpoint can be interesting without requiring endorsement.
Our coverage of these rallies wasn’t ever intended to be a policy paper on greenhouse gases. Our job, as I saw it, was to fairly report on why Oregonians are stirred to action by this issue.
Throughout, we strained to build coverage that was fair and without bias. Still, people picked at word choices or contested our observations as evidence we were pro-timber or pro-climate change.
Journalists aren’t perfect, and any coverage of a breaking news event could always be better. Still, the work of Salem Reporter reflected the principles we have lived by since we started operation. We will report the news without fear and without favor. We won’t fear criticism and neither will we ever knowingly favor one interest or viewpoint over another.
Les Zaitz is editor of Salem Reporter. Reach him directly at [email protected].
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