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There is a fine line between journalism and sensationalism

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The Oxford Dictionary defines journalism as “the activity or profession of writing for newspapers or magazines or of broadcasting news on radio or television.”

The definition might suffice generally, but there’s more to it than that. Journalists gather facts, talk to people close to an issue, investigate their claims and gather evidence to support or debunk them. They put that evidence into an objective narrative to help people reach informed conclusions about what’s going on.

The Oxford Dictionary defines sensationalism as “(especially in journalism) the use of exciting or shocking stories or language at the expense of accuracy, in order to provoke public interest or excitement.”

Journalists walk a fine line between journalism and sensationalism. We have a responsibility to our employers to keep readers interested in their products, be they newspapers, radio and TV broadcasts or web news.

It is at times difficult to keep our objectivity when we sympathize with a particular subject, but that objectivity must be maintained.

There are also times when we know a particular story could really get people talking, thereby bringing a lot of attention to our employers’ products.

The temptation to only tell the interesting parts of the story, unfortunately, sometimes wins.

We saw that happen last week with a story about a couple in Ogdensburg who believes repeat acts of vandalism on their property are being perpetrated by somebody who hates them just because they’re gay.

The first news outlet that carried the story of Christopher and Theodore Gardener colored it in this light: These two men are the victims of a hate crime, and city police were turning a blind eye to it.

I’m sure the journalist who put that compelling story together made his employer very, very happy.

But he didn’t report the whole story. He didn’t give Ogdensburg police an opportunity to explain themselves. If he had, his report would have been much different.

Journal reporter Sean Ewart did some investigative journalism and found that the while the Gardeners have indeed been the victims of repeat acts of vandalism, those acts had no obvious signs that they were carried out by somebody who hates gay people. Their Ford Street house has been peppered with eggs. They’ve lost windows to BB gun shots. They’ve suffered slashed tires.

City police have so far gathered no evidence to indicate any of these acts add up to a hate crime.

We are persuaded by that view, because we know at least some of the people the Gardeners implicated in the crimes — who we will not name because they have not been formally accused of a crime, although they were identified on a police blotter incident report we reviewed as part of our investigation — are also members of the city’s gay community.

Somebody clearly has a problem with them, but openly gay people committing hate crimes against other openly gay people just doesn’t happen.

It’s terrible that they’ve suffered these acts, and I can understand their frustration.

Having grown up on South Water Street in Ogdensburg, my parents’ house lost more than a couple of windows to BB gun shots.

We got egged. We got rocks thrown through our garage windows. My mother’s front porch window currently is broken because somebody through a snowball or a rock through it — we’re not sure which because we haven’t found the errant projectile.

Having somebody work against all the effort you put in to keeping up your property is a headache that eventually becomes unbearable, especially if they are not caught.

Although my parents always reported these incidents to police, these crimes are hard to solve unless you catch somebody in the act or there is a witness.

Police actually investigated, but never found out who was doing it. I figure it was just some jackass kid in the neighborhood who I hope eventually grew out of the destruction of property phase.

I hope the Gardeners are able to find the culprit and put an end to their torment, and I hope they can rest easier once the New York Civil Liberties Union also concludes that there is no evidence of a hate crime against them.

In the meantime, the media should do them the favor of accurately reporting their situation, rather than using this couple’s misfortune for their own gain by only telling half the story.

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