No Small Matter
August 2008

by Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Some might think it is a minor story, but people in Waukesha, Wis., are actually losing sleep over it.

Up to 40 trains run through the city every 24 hours. Usually, only motorists are inconvenienced. They have to pause at the railroad crossings until the train has passed, the bell stops ringing, the flashing lights fade to black and the gate arms swing up.

But earlier this summer, a city worker forgot to submit the paperwork to the Federal Railroad Administration asking train companies to refrain from sounding their horns in Waukesha.

So now the engineers sound their horns at intersections and railroad crossings throughout the city.

All day long, and all night long.

And the federal agency says the trains will continue to do so until the FRA Safety Board meets this month (and not a day sooner, the agency says). That's when a renewal of the city's "quiet zone" status will be considered.

The word "angry" does not begin to describe most of the letters to the editor in the Waukesha Freeman and the comments in the paper's phone-in "Sound Off" section.

Some call for the firing of the bureaucrat who was late filing the proper paperwork. Others blame the mayor because the fiasco happened on his watch.

Almost no one, and particularly those who live near the tracks and work the first shift, says the noise harkens them back to their childhood days when they listened to the whistles before drifting off to sleep.

This story, and millions of others that may seem minor to anyone but the participants, are constantly unfolding across the country. Each, in its own way, underscores the importance of responsible journalism to a community.

Yet, the newspapers that appear daily on our front porches are beginning to look anorexic and the television news ratings are flatlining.

We try to imagine what it would be like if there were no news organizations, as the trains continue rumbling by.

No one to tell the citizens what is going on.

To get the story straight.

To explain what happens next.

To hold the responsible parties to account.

We imagine that people would be left with PR missives from the mayor's office, conversations with neighbors over the back fence or the ruminations of self-interested bloggers.

These sources of information are plentiful, interesting and sometimes even entertaining, but they are not the best sources in the journalistic sense of the term.

Responsible journalism requires journalists to collect, vet, challenge, interpret and present information in a way that the rest of us can understand, and rely on to reflect the truth.

We live in a world of media uncertainty driven by, among other things, changing technology and a tanking economy. Time will pass as the system of news delivery works these problems out.

Meanwhile, two things remain certain.

The first certainty is that the news organizations that adhere to solid professional standards and practices will likely survive; journalists who build reputations on fairness, accuracy and completeness will find their audiences. Those audiences will be made up of the same people who have long relied the news provided by a free and responsible press to help organize and live out their days.

Those people are here, and they always will be.

We know this to be true because of the second certainty:

It's the beginning of August, and those train horns are still blowing.

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© Karen Slattery and Mark Doremus

Karen Slattery is an associate professor in the College of Communication at Marquette University. She teaches courses related to broadcast journalism, media ethics, and qualitative research methods.

Mark Doremus has a Ph.D. in Journalism and Mass Communication and a law degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is now employed as a research administrator. He worked in television news for 13 years in various capacities, primarily as a news reporter-photographer. He still cares deeply about the press, in all its forms, and its practitioners. He met his wife and co-columnist, Karen Slattery, when they were both working in local television news.