Evolving standards mirror city’s transition


I suppose there were some folks in Columbus who believed that the city’s political fireworks had sputtered out when all the votes were counted in the 2015 mayoral election.

That was when challenger Jim Lienhoop dealt a convincing defeat to incumbent Kristen Brown in the Republican primary, supposedly bringing to an end many months of diatribes thrown out by both sides in a campaign that was arguably one of the most bitter and divisive in Columbus history.

It didn’t work out that way as witnessed by an incident during a City Council meeting last month at which a Brown supporter objected to a requirement that he provide his home address before addressing the council.

That triggered a back and forth involving the mayor, council members and the Brown supporters about the requirement, the speaker arguing that it was an invasion of his privacy. Things got so heated that one council member walked out of the meeting in protest of the Brown supporter being allowed to continue speaking without abiding by the home address requirement.

The incident could be taken as a signal that the public is probably going to have to put up with this divisive name calling into and through the next mayoral election but it also can be seen as a reflection of how Columbus and its people have changed over the past 50 years.

I use that half-century benchmark because it relates to the time I moved to Columbus in 1966 to take a position with The Evening Republican.

Columbus was a town vastly different from the city it is today. It’s fair to describe newspaper coverage of the community as reflective of that small town atmosphere, one in which practically everybody knew your name.

Reporters and editors were bound to certain rules and standards, one of which dealt with the identity of story subjects.

It was not enough that we refer to the subject of a story by name only. We were also required to print the individual’s age and street address. In some instances, especially with younger subjects, we reported the names of the parents of the individual.

We went to great lengths to answer the Who, What, Where, Why and How questions posed by news stories. For instance, in police records we included the street addresses of incidents such as accidents and domestic disturbances.

Looking back on it, I suppose we considered such details as a form of public service. We were telling our readers what had happened in their community. I recall the justification offered by a news editor of that era for printing the full address of an incident reported in police records. People driving or walking past that address while the incident was being investigated by police, he said, were naturally curious as to what had transpired. The newspaper was providing that answer.

It was also helping the reader recognize the subjects of stories, such as going so far as to include the names of the subject’s parents. While some readers might not have been familiar with the subject, they might have known the parents.

Ironically, a different policy held for writers of letters to the editor. Instead of requiring that the writer’s name appear with the letter, they were given the option of being identified by a pseudonym – the theory being that it encouraged expression of opinion which might not have been forthcoming from someone fearful of reprisals.

I’m not certain when all this began to change but I would argue that a primary cause for adopting a more circumspect approach about subject identity in news stories came about as Columbus transitioned from a home grown populace to one with diverse backgrounds.

That began in the 1960s and really took hold from the 1970s forward as local corporations launched national recruiting efforts in the search for skilled workers and managers.

The growing presence of these “newcomers” had an effect on the way The Republic covered local news. Unfamiliar with local familial backgrounds, many questioned the value of details such as parental names or high school attended.

Many were aghast that we included the age of subjects along with their home addresses in stories, arguing that such details were private and no one else’s business.

Change evolved out of these opinions. At some point we dropped the house number in street addresses. We also stopped the inclusion of parental names as a matter of course – a welcome step for reporters who had to ask subjects for the information and try to come up with an answer to the question, “Why?”

Curiously, we took a different approach as to the identity of letters to the editor writers, requiring that their name and hometown be printed with their letter. While acknowledging that full disclosure would likely give some would-be writers second thoughts about submitting their opinions, the prevailing view leaned to the position some pseudonym users were using the allowance to take potshots at whoever or whatever was bugging them without taking responsibility for their words.

In a way, the changes in newspaper policy were a reflection of the changes that were taking place in Columbus’ demographics in the closing years of the 20th century. Columbus stopped being a small town several decades ago as it switched from native-grown to diversified.

Details in newspaper stories that helped the native born better identify with the subjects meant nothing to people who had moved here from somewhere else. In the give and take between old timers and newcomers, the newcomers eventually prevailed.

In some cases, it is hard to argue with their logic. An invasion of privacy can have many interpretations. One consideration is certainly legitimate, that being that the disclosure of information such as home addresses or even ages can raise security issues and threaten the safety of subjects.

But the invasion of privacy issue also extends to an attitude among many people that such information is extraneous for those who are not acquainted with the subjects or have not developed any kind of background knowledge of Columbus.

In some respects, the incident at the Columbus City Council meeting can be seen as a continuation of the ongoing feud between supporters of former Mayor Brown and the current administration.

In other respects it is a reflection of how Columbus and its people have changed over a relatively short period of time.

Harry McCawley is the former associate editor of The Republic. He can be reached at harry@therepublic.com.