Yes, we have an agenda when we write stories
Many people assume the Daily Herald has an overriding agenda with every story we produce, and they're right. Actually, we have two agendas -- to engage and to inform. What happens beyond that is, as it should be, largely outside of our control.
Consider four controversial stories from the past week: U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh's child support, Burt Constable's look at a program for mentally ill teen mothers, Jake Griffin's watchdog story on per diems for Illinois legislators and our series on the Elgin teenager who stabbed and nearly killed one of his teachers.
In one form or another, readers have perceived a point of view behind each of these stories, and that's understandable. For nearly every story we publish, some editor or reporter thought to himself or herself, "People will want to know this," or "People will need to know this," and, to be sure, such questions imply some sort of value judgment. But for these four stories and scores like them every month, the value judgment doesn't go beyond what is reported.
We did not, for example, produce a three-day series about Angel Facio in order to create public sympathy for someone who viciously attacked a schoolteacher. We published that series because a curious reporter who has covered this story almost from the beginning more than three years ago couldn't stop thinking about questions that torment nearly every crime reporter at one time or another. Why, really why, did he do this? Not just the one-sentence shorthand we typically convert into a "motive," but that plus all of the factors that went into creating it. A deeper examination of those circumstances naturally leads in many directions -- moral, social, personal and otherwise. By carrying us through those directions, Projects and Politics Writer Kerry Lester did not necessarily promote a moral, social or personal point of view, but she certainly helped conscientious readers build or strengthen their own points of view.
Burt Constable's compelling look Sunday at a Maryville program for teenage mothers offered a similar result. Even though some of the circumstances Constable described were heartbreaking and shocking, no reasonable reader would believe that either he or the newspaper condones the behaviors that led to them. Many reasonable readers, however, surely came away from that story with a greater understanding of the difficult conditions in which some people must live their lives.
As "watchdog reporter," Jake Griffin produces stories that by definition are intended to alert readers to potential threats. But sometimes, as with his story on legislative per diems, the emphasis is on potential. As he laid out the circumstances of legislative per diems, Griffin was careful to include the efforts lawmakers have made to keep them under control and to show the relatively small role they play in state spending. But as he also demonstrated, the $1.7 million spent on mileage and per diems a year is not insignificant. They merit a place in any responsible discussion of what we spend to govern ourselves.
On that and other of these stories, including the Walsh child support controversy and the Facio case, the Daily Herald did offer an institutional opinion, expressed in an editorial on this page. But it's important to keep in mind that the editorials are distinct from the stories themselves. In many ways, they show us reacting to the stories, just as you may react to them -- though our opinions may not reflect your own.
So, do we write stories like these and play them on the front page to make you think a certain way? Not at all. Do we write them to make you think? Absolutely. We're confident that informed thought will always lead, if only to the smallest degree, toward better things.