Practicing journalism in a small town is always challenging, but occasionally it can be down right daunting, as our colleagues at Jasper’s weekly paper, The Fitzhugh, were reminded recently.
The editorial staff was under fire for publishing an uncomfortable story about a local hotel’s bedbug infestation, after Alberta Health Services ordered the hotel to shut down several of its rooms. Soon after the story appeared online, a barrage of criticism was hurled at the paper for “shaming” the hotel and jeopardizing Jasper’s reputation amongst travellers. Fellow business owners, friends of the family and former staff members piled on, suggesting the story was sensationalist—some kind of low-blow that unfairly singled out one business’ bad day. Some folks urged the Fitzhugh to take the story down from their website and forgo publishing it in the paper edition. Let’s get one thing clear: the media didn’t create this story. Rather, just as if they were broadcasting a court decision, an RCMP warning or a public health order of any other kind, the Fitzhugh was reporting this information in the public’s interest. They weren’t doing so out of malice or to fill a hole in the paper, but to inform the public what the provincial health authority determined to be an unacceptable risk to the public’s well-being. They were compelled to do it because that is the role a weekly newspaper serves in a community. Furthermore, their report was balanced, accurate and fair.
Tourist town or not, community journalism isn’t all kittens and rainbows. The Fitzhugh staff should be commended for sticking to their principles and not bowing to threats and bullying. Folks who were advocating the suppression of this information should ask themselves whose needs would have being served by burying this incident under the rug. Certainly not the public’s. As for the hotel in question, this incident will pass, so long as they focus on the mess, rather than the messenger.