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updated: 7/18/2013 10:18 AM

No hidden agenda in our approach to controversy

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Controversy finds its way into the print and electronic pages of the Daily Herald primarily in two ways. It's incorrect to say we go out looking to start fights, but if, say, an investigation into local government expenses gets readers' blood boiling, we understand. We want to bring to the public's attention issues we think they want or need to know in order to protect their pocketbooks, their government or their rights.

But more often, we don't make controversy so much as we follow it. An incident occurs that demonstrates a clear threat to public safety or rights and we report on the people raising the pros and cons. A citizen becomes outraged about something going on in his community. Public officials take actions that disturb or enrage their political colleagues, and we report the developments.

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These two routes -- controversy provoked and controversy pursued -- are not mutually exclusive, and sometimes overlap in interesting ways. Which brings me to Island Lake. As even casual readers of the Daily Herald, regardless of where they live, likely know, the newspaper does not need to provoke disagreements in Island Lake; town officials and political activists provide more than enough on their own for us to pursue. But the pursuit can lead us down unexpected avenues and result in independent reporting that adds to an existing controversy. One such avenue last week produced an intriguing question that can help describe the evolution of controversy in the contemporary environment of newspaper publishing.

A story by staff writer Russell Lissau developed out of reporting Russell undertook when he found that the wife of someone who settled a libel suit with the village works for the campaign of the newly elected mayor. One may justify or castigate according to his own values and interpretations of the details the propriety of a $20,000 payout to the husband of a mayor's campaign treasurer -- that, after all, is what controversy is all about -- but the importance of readers knowing the information seems obvious on its face.

So, Russell appropriately spoke to all sides and we reported the story. The resulting controversy naturally followed the course of those representing one side or another, but it also spilled out to include us. A local blogger noticed that our print headline, "Island Lake settlement recipient's wife works for mayor," differed from our online headline, "Husband of Island Lake mayor's campaign treasurer getting $20,000 from village."

The blogger sees in this difference some sort of insidious plot on our part to "sanitize" the headline and wonders what "newspaper of record" means in a world where the 24-hour news cycle can lead to ever changing headlines and reports. They're legitimate questions.

Actually, the term "newspaper of record" alone could spark enough debate to keep newspaper geeks happy for months, but the concern here has to do with whether a headline in one format has more validity than that in another. To that point, I would simply say it doesn't -- but there can be technical distinction. One of the blessings of the Internet is that its space is limitless, thus alleviating one of the great constraints on headline writers. An editor forced by print space to condense a complex description into three vague words, can provide online a more complete and specific description.

That's what happened here. So, for those who somehow see us spreading one message online and another in print, I suspect some confusion about our approach to controversy with our news stories. We may stir it up sometimes. We more often may follow it wherever it takes us. And we're happy to use the web to help everyone sort it out.

But we have no desire to promote it.

Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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