It may be true, as some suggest, that one function of a newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, but it’s probably more true that our job is to show you the comfortable and the afflicted and let you decide what to do from there.
As it applies to at least some of the afflicted, it’s obvious that you’re more than up to the task.
Stories of particular hardship from around the suburbs have appeared in the Daily Herald in at least three versions over the past couple of weeks.
Madhu Krishnamurthy told you about a couple panhandling with their dog and one-year-old child on a tollway off-ramp.
Harry Hitzeman described the plight of a Hampshire family about to lose its home to foreclosure despite winning a $2.7 million settlement from the drunken driver who put them in the predicament and who, uninsured and sitting now in prison, will likely never have anything like that kind of money to surrender.
Burt Constable told of Chris Hradisky, whose mental illness and alcoholism nearly killed him but for the kindness of strangers and an estranged sister.
As these examples demonstrate, such stories are not rare, even in the comparatively affluent West and Northwest suburbs of Chicago.
Yet, they bear telling perhaps for that very reason, because they are not rare and because at the same time, they are not common, either.
We do not tell them to solicit your pity or your assistance for the subjects at hand — though it must be said that in almost every instance of such a story, as in all three above, many of you prove eager to offer them. Indeed, the stories sometimes include complications that extend beyond the surface details of the narrative.
The panhandling family’s circumstances would prove to include brushes with drugs and the law that, while not diminishing the desperateness of their situation, do strain the bounds of sympathy. Hradisky is one object lesson of success for a social services program in danger of losing some state funding, but the issues related to the state funding run deeper than his story alone.
Rather, these stories are important for helping to complete the picture of the region as well as the world in which we live. They belie the stereotype of suburbs unsullied by the harsh difficulties of life that are thought, like disease and unnatural death, to afflict only “other people.” They provide added dimension to an image of who we are that generally can be painted only in broad strokes.
The follow-up, of course, also contributes to that picture, and often in a most gratifying way. That we are people who reach out to offer jobs, support, services and even money when we learn of specific suffering is a particularly uplifting postscript to most of these stories.
When Chicago journalist Finley Peter Dunne coined that phrase about the comfortable and the afflicted, he was not being altogether complimentary of his profession. In fact, he was complaining in the voice of his fictional “Mr. Dooley” character about the influence of the press, and he no doubt had a point. Yet, whether considered in his original context or in the crusading tones into which the phrase has often been misconstrued over the years, it is risky to apply them to the mission and aim of most newspapers.
We assuredly have a duty to describe as thoroughly and honestly as we can the suffering and the conquering of suffering that we see in our communities. After that, the rest is up to you.
Jim Slusher, email@example.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.Copyright © 2013 Paddock Publications, Inc. All rights reserved.