America / The stories I didn't write

Unwritten stories

(Pitched in May of 2006, when I was a reporter at Foster’s Daily Democrat.)

To whom it may concern,

I would like to propose an article about stories that didn’t make the news. Some were written and never published. Others were never written at all. I would like to describe some of these killed stories and examine the factors that typically lead to their death.

I am currently a busy, full-time reporter at a daily in New Hampshire, and I have several of these stories that keep turning around at the back of my mind. Other reporters and photographers probably have a few as well.
I can’t stop thinking about them.

I think about the lady who called to tell me about a 16-year-old shoplifter who was beat up pretty bad by two Wal-Mart security guards. I never wrote the story, because the woman would understandingly not release anyone’s names, and police couldn’t comment because a minor was involved. Wal-Mart’s corporate office had no comment.

The paper’s policy is that we do not deal with anonymous sources. If the source does not want to be named, the editor says, how do we know he or she isn’t making things up? No name – no story.

I think about the man with a big beer belly bulging out of his sweat pants, who came to tell me he didn’t receive appropriate medication or diabetic meals while in prison. The editor said we couldn’t write the story unless the former prisoner filed a lawsuit. “That’s a matter for the courts, not for us,” he said.

I think about the story about the recycling practices of bookstores and the disposal of mass-market paperbacks that I was working on while an intern at New Hampshire Public Radio. The story was never finished because practically all bookstores referred me to their headquarters. Barnes & Noble, and Borders never called back, nor did any of the big publishers and distributors I tried to contact. No one would speak, so there was no story.

My co-worker never wrote a story about an increase in cancer rates in his community. The editor told him to proceed very carefully, because of the implications such a story would have. Derek didn’t write the story. Not yet, anyway. Some stories are not written because they require more effort and research than we have time for at the daily.

I think about the elderly widow who called several times to tell us that her husband’s living will contributed to the poor medical treatment he received in the hospital and ultimately lead to his death. Hospitals and doctors say they can’t discuss individual patients. End result: story was not written.

Overall, I am not really interested in stories that were killed because they were either poorly written or not newsworthy. To the contrary, I am interested in stories that were newsworthy, important, and relevant. I am interested in sources who refused to give their names, insisted that the information was “off the record”, or wouldn’t talk at all. I am interested in the institutionalization of what is typically ignored by the media, such as domestic violence, and suicides, as well as in the institutionalization of information that can be kept secret. Police don’t release the victims’ names nor provide any information about crimes if minors are involved. Chain stores that are owned by large corporations are not allowed to speak with reporters and must direct all inquires to the press personnel at their headquarters. Hospitals don’t release information about patients.

In addition to describing my own experiences as a reporter, I would interview other reporters, editors and photographers about their unwritten stories.

Finally, the article would examine the implications of stories that don’t make the news. Are there certain types of stories that are left untold more often than others – i.e. stories where poor people’s grievances are involved? What are we missing, and what is the effect of this missing information on us as a society?
I look forward to hearing from you soon.

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