Thursday, March 09, 2006

Strange Effects II

I previewed the planning and zoning meeting again this week, the only difference being I put a byline on it. Previously, I thought of the preview simply as a way to publish the agenda, and so I figured it should run without a byline. I realized, though, that once I start putting the agenda into sentences I am interpreting the document, and that interpretation demands a byline for accountability.

At the meeting, two people spoke at the public hearing, neither in the 200 foot range the city is required to notify. Last time I wrote about this, my concern was alerting people who had information that might change the outcome of the vote. This time, the residents were concerned about what exactly this development would be.

That means I didn’t adequately describe or research the development in advance. The questions those residents asked the commission were questions I should have asked several days ago and printed. I have previously discussed the virtues of a wider radius. My wider radius worked better this time than last, but ultimately failed. That I reach more people than the city is irrelevant in the face of content concerns. Or: telling a lot of people not enough information doesn’t help any of them.

This reinforces a growing belief I’m acquiring. Investigative reporting is held as the highest example of how a newspaper can change a community. And while I do think it is important to be keep pressure on those in power, to have them know someone is watching, there is another side of the operation that gets ignored. And that is reporting about the processes of powerful entities: government, business, law, science and technology. These entities have become so complicated that regular people cannot access them without outside help.

One great investigative piece can initiate a cycle of great change, but 100 smaller articles explaining how a municipality works creates an educational foundation for people to stop being tricked in the first place. Or: explanatory writing can open up area of knowledge that can become closed to laymen and help break down the world where experts can only talk to experts.

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