Of orphans and missing persons

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By Dan Haley

Editor and Publisher

What is an orphan? And why is this question being debated on our website?

Does the Journal care more about white people who go missing? Or just people well known in the community?

Ripped from the headlines of community journalism. Welcome to Oak Park in the summer of 2011. These are interesting questions and go to the heart of why neighborhood journalism is so compelling and vital. We're not talking in vague, high-hatted concepts here. We're talking about people you might meet at Dominick's, who are in your kids' class.

The orphan conversation started with our coverage of children from Hephzibah running a lemonade stand to raise money for other kids who had lost their parents in a car wreck. The story's headline referred to the kids who are in residence at Hephzibah being orphans.

While everyone agreed the story was a great one, we got taken to task by several readers who believed we had used an inaccurate and archaic word when we called these wards of the state orphans.

"Shocking and very dated," wrote one. "How would the kids feel seeing themselves labeled as orphans?" asked another.

Well, when Mary Anne Brown, who runs Hephzibah, wrote to tell me that her kids had now raised over $1,000 for the family in the accident, I took the opportunity to ask if we had inadvertently maligned them as "orphans."

No, she said, she considers orphans an apt description of the situation most of the children in residence at Hephzibah face. "Traditionally I think the word might have been defined as children whose parents were dead. However, a more modern understanding includes children whose relationship with their parents are terminated voluntarily or through judicial action. ... So the use of the term orphan was correct," she said.

"It is interesting that people have such a reaction to the word. In fact, there are a great many people who were orphans who have done quite well and we discuss this with the kids," she wrote before listing Babe Ruth, Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs, among others. "Orphans give us hope!" she concluded.

A month ago we gave a lot of coverage, mainly online as deadlines fell, to the search for a missing local man. The community rallied. He turned up safe. But we received some feedback suggesting that our coverage was skewed because he was a white man with a lot of connections in the village.

Some people here were offended by this question being raised. Not me. How media choose what to cover is about the most elemental aspect of being editors. Before we decide what word to use in a headline or choose a picture to illustrate a story, we decide whether a story will be covered at all. Readers ought to be thinking about what gets covered and what is ignored. In being made to think through our choices, editors and reporters clarify their own thinking, priorities and biases.

Looking back I'm confident in the coverage we authored. In this moment of online news and social media, was the reality that this person had many friends and acquaintances an aspect of what drove the story? Sure it was. That he was an active participant in local affairs raised the coverage level and it should have.

But is the overall media much more likely to cover the disappearance or death of a white woman than an African American? It would be impossible to argue otherwise. There are multiple examples of national media making a fetish of missing blondes.

I'm sensitive to race being a part of our editorial judgments. Sometimes race is an essential aspect of coverage. At times it is irrelevant. But seldom in a community with aspirations for integration and diversity should it be overlooked. That makes the question that was raised a fair and necessary one.

Email: dhaley@wjinc.com Twitter: @OPEditor

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CoveringForOthers from Oak Park  

Posted: August 17th, 2011 12:49 AM

Always good to go back to the source of a story to find out what their definition is after the fact to bolster up that Dan Haley, didn't use the word, "Orphan",incorrectly when he wrote the story. Now what becomes confusing is the usage of the word orphan, when used to describe Babe Ruth, Nelson Mandela and Steve Jobs.

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