Black 'N' Whyte
Canyon Country defenders miss the markTim Whyte · July 27, 1997
There were two crime stories on the front page of the paper the other day. One was about a Canadian jewelry store owner who was robbed in Valencia after a group of thugs followed him from the jewelry mart in downtown Los Angeles. The other was about a Canyon Country man who allegedly tried to rob a Frame 'n' Lens store, then fled, carrying a fake gun, into the neighboring Ralphs supermarket. He was arrested after a 90-minute standoff with sheriff's deputies.
The robbery of the Canadian jeweler occurred Tuesday night, late enough that we didn't pick up on it until Wednesday morning. The botched Frame 'n' Lens robbery and standoff occurred late Wednesday afternoon and early evening. We heard radio scanner traffic on it, so a reporter and a couple of photographers headed to the scene.
The standoff was the more dramatic of the two stories. Carol Chambers did a nice job writing both, and Steve McCrank and Dan Cusick, as usual, came up with outstanding photos of the standoff. Television helicopters circled over the Soledad Canyon road shopping center, and the story made TV newscasts Wednesday evening.
Both crimes were relatively unusual for the Santa Clarita Valley: A supposedly armed standoff with cops, and the ambush robbery of a jeweler by a band of bad guys. Bother were page one news for us, and we thought we handled them appropriately.
Then came the phone calls.
The first call, thankfully, I missed because I was interviewing a candidate for a job. It came from a woman who purported to be a relative of the suspect in the attempted robbery, and she lit into Carol on the phone, using all sorts of very bad words and accusing her of basically making up the whole thing.
The story was solid, so it was pretty easy to brush off that call.
Then came the second call.
This one was from one of our most vehement critics, a woman who lives in Canyon Country and frequently accuses The Signal of having an institutional bias against Canyon Country. I couldn't just brush this one off.
She accused us of intentionally playing up the standoff by publishing the photos and making it the more dominant of the two crime stories, simply because it occurred in Canyon Country. This, she says, is done because the newspaper takes great joy in making Canyon Country look bad.
How do I respond to that without appearing defensive?
There is, of course, no truth to her accusation. We didn't hear the scanner traffic on the standoff and say to ourselves, "Whoah! We better get out there because it's a chance to make Canyon Country look bad!"
No. We heard of a breaking story in our community, one that could threaten the safety of citizens and local sheriff's deputies, and we rolled to it. We would have done the same if it had been in Saugus, Newhall or Valencia.
Of course, my caller contends that's not the case; she argues that we intentionally ignore crimes if they occur in Valencia, and then play them up when they occur in Canyon Country. I argue that we do not. Our largest circulation numbers are in the 91351 ZIP code -- i.e., Canyon Country.
That's not to say we don't screw up here and there. Any human being doing a job will make an honest mistake once in a while, and as a result perhaps a mistake or two have been perceived as unduly detrimental to Canyon Country. But there is no institutional, policy-based bias against one specific area. For a newspaper that's trying to serve the entire community, such a posture would be foolish.
I tried pointing out that we publish many positive stories about all parts of our community, including Canyon Country, but of course this call came out of the blue so I didn't have a stack of stories, with publication dates and page numbers, handy for easy reference. She was not impressed.
Then there were the datelines.
The dateline is the geographical reference at the beginning of each news story. Many of ours have been "SANTA CLARITA," especially for stories reported by phone. Our office is in Valencia, but since we consider ourselves the newspaper of the entire Santa Clarita Valley, if a story was done by phone or originated from the courthouse or City Hall, we have usually given it a Santa Clarita dateline.
It's generally correct newspaper style to use a dateline that indicates where the story was reported, not necessarily where the event occurred, so if a reporter ventures out to cover an event or a breaking story, the more specific community name is usually used. For example, the standoff story carried a Canyon Country dateline because the reporter went to the scene. The robbery of the jeweler was reported from the office, since the crime occurred late Tuesday night and our crime reporter didn't get wind of it until the next morning. Therefore, it bore a Santa Clarita dateline.
Of course, the caller complained that this indicates a desire by the newspaper to avoid using "Valencia" as the dateline for a crime story that could be viewed as negative. Further, she complained that the standoff story only bore a Canyon Country dateline because we thought it was a keen way to make Canyon Country look bad.
That's not what our datelines are about, but you know what? To avoid any future misconceptions, here's what we're going to do: We're not going to put datelines on local stories anymore. We'll still use datelines if a reporter goes on the road and leaves the Santa Clarita Valley to cover a story, but starting this weekend, we're not going to use local datelines. Given the size of our local coverage area, a location reference somewhere high in the story should suffice, and lots of community newspapers don't use local datelines, so this isn't a terribly off-the-wall move. In fact, until a few years ago, we didn't use them. Without them, no one can read too much into our decision on which dateline to use on a given story.
The caller was wrong. But it's clear that a few perception problems exist: Some Canyon Country residents are fighting their perception that Canyon Country is somehow the stepchild among Santa Clarita's communities, and The Signal is fighting their perception that the newspaper seeks to tarnish the image of Canyon Country.
Ironically, my Tuesday caller helps perpetuate the perception by keeping the issue alive.
It won't help matters that we have to cover the ongoing school boundary dispute in which a group of Plum Canyon residents object to a plan that would send their kids to school in Canyon Country. We didn't create the issue, but it is a continuing debate in our community that warrants coverage. I wonder if, after the next story appears, I'll hear from that caller again.
As always, perception is at least as important as reality, probably more so. For the sake of Canyon Country and this newspaper, we have to beat those perceptions.
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Tim Whyte is the magaging editor of The Signal. His commentary appears on Sundays.
© 1997, THE SIGNAL -- ALL RIGHTS RESERVED
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