There is something that’s been bothering me, and as a news reporter, I am not alone in feeling the frustration.
On social media, you will see it daily: accusations of malfeasance, subversion, corruption and all types of wrongdoing by locally elected leaders. They are peppered with claims that something, “smells funny,” and implications that you’ve somehow been conned, often with little evidence.
As a journalist, I take it as my job to investigate such claims, and when actual back-door dealings or bad actors are discovered, to expose those responsible.
The problem is that some, on Facebook and other platforms, would have you believe that it is happening all of the time. And they seem to believe that news stories that don’t portray those in charge negatively are not journalism at all.
They are wrong on both counts.
First, the job of news media is to inform, and not all issues are steeped in controversy. Most times, news stories should just let you know what’s happening, so you have the information needed to form an opinion later on. Other times, local news can and should be light and fun, highlighting notable achievements in the community.
Secondly, unlike national leaders, your municipal leaders here in northern Rhode Island are also your neighbors. They are mothers and fathers, accountants, business owners and soccer coaches. On town councils and school committees, they receive minimal pay – typically a few thousand a year for demanding work – and nearly all hold full time jobs.
No, that doesn’t make them saints, or incapable of corruption – or even just general bad decision-making. But it does make them far more accessible to you, and much more likely to seek office to help solve problems and contribute to their communities, rather than for power or monetary gain.
In turn, these individuals expose themselves to scrutiny and fairly constant criticism, often personal. I’ve heard it in anecdotes from leaders in both political factions: “I’ve known her for 30 years and now we don’t talk since she attacked me publicly,” or, “He accused me of lying and cheating on Facebook, and now I have to sit next to him at our sons’ basketball game.”
Are we surprised that more and more often, no one wants the jobs? In recent years, we’ve seen a notable decline in local candidates for political office, and those who do run – often unopposed – express great hesitation. Fired-up mobs may chant, “vote them out,” but that means little when Election Day comes and there are no choices on the ballot.
I’m not saying there is anything wrong with taking a critical and vocal look at the actions of elected leaders. The citizen watchdogs in our society often work hand-in-hand with journalists, passing along information and drawing attention to important issues. But the value of those watchdogs is greatly diminished when their public commentary becomes politically-driven, or amounts to character assassination, as is too often the case.
There have been times in my career where I have, indeed, found those stories: misuse of public funds, dishonesty and bad character, and I have reported on them. There have also been many times when I’ve seen community leaders who seem to be decent people make bad decisions, through everything from actual crimes, to neglect of duties. I’ve reported those too.
But what I won’t do is imply wrongdoing without evidence. I try to ensure that anything published here meets a standard of proof.
And so, while yes, salacious headlines and corrupt politicians certainly get people’s attention, I am asking you, the reader, to hold yourself to a higher standard, both here and in discourse elsewhere. When you see off-handed comments that imply secrecy, corruption and misdealing, ask for the proof. Try not assume that all of our community leaders are inherently bad, or that they are not at least trying to work in your best interest. In my experience, most are actually decent people who try their best, even when their actions aren’t particularly popular.
This brings me to the alternative to the vitriol that far too often dominates both local and national discourse: informed discussion. It may sound cliche, but it’s true: reasonable people can, and will, disagree. I’d like to call on everyone to put that reason first, dismiss claims from those who imply something is wrong without explaining exactly what, and to focus on the issues. Think and talk about policy – not individuals. And when you think about local issues, view with skepticism those who only go after certain individual targets.
In turn, I promise that at NRI NOW, we will always do our best to investigate those claims of wrongdoing, and will only publish the stories with merit.
Together, maybe we can drown out some of the noise that is scaring so many away from political office and help to move things forward, at least in northern Rhode Island.
Sandy Hall is a North Smithfield resident, and the founder and publisher of NRI NOW.