Von Pinnon: Story about Postal Service dispute riled many readers
Few stories in my 16 1/2 years at The Forum prompted as strong a response as one we published on Feb. 4. The story was about the great lengths taken by a Moorhead woman to try to get her regular mail carrier replaced. Readers let us have it in ph...
Few stories in my 16½ years at The Forum prompted as strong a response as one we published on Feb. 4.
The story was about the great lengths taken by a Moorhead woman to try to get her regular mail carrier replaced.
Readers let us have it in phone calls, letters and the online comment section. Members of our Readers Board, which met last Tuesday, were very critical, prompting a spirited and deep discussion about the story and the decisions that went into publishing it.
Readers had many beefs with it, but most centered around four main themes:
- How does one woman's complaints with her mail carrier constitute news?
- Why did The Forum choose to write about it?
- Why did we name the mail carrier and show his face, especially since he chose not to comment for the story?
- Why was the story on Page 1?
I'll try to address each of these questions:
One woman's complaint with a mail carrier in and of itself is not newsworthy. What made this story newsworthy were the great lengths taken by this woman to try to get her carrier removed, from addressing supervisors up the chain of federal command to writing one of her U.S. senators a nine-page letter to putting up a "not wanted" poster with her carrier's name and face on it to finally asking the U.S. Postal Service to not deliver to her home.
We chose to write about it because complaints and boycotts don't normally get this far. In fact, a national spokesman for the U.S. Postal Service said he's never heard of a complaint ending with a customer requesting no mail service.
Media markets much bigger than ours confirmed the situation's rarity, picking up on it and even discussing it there.
That's why it was news, and that's why it was on Page 1.
We also thought people would find the issue interesting, and it appears they did, given the intense community debate over the matter beyond our role in publicizing it.
Most people thought the woman's complaints were over the top, that she must be ill, or that she was simply selfish in her demands.
But a minority of voices countered: What is a person to do if the U.S. Postal Service - a federal institution - is not meeting your standards? What's one person's recourse against such a Goliath?
And this brings up another good point: The U.S. press has a long tradition of giving voice to the voiceless. It's not uncommon for people who think they have nowhere else to turn to ask the press to help expose an issue. In fact, some would argue that's the reason the First Amendment exists - it was born from a distrust in government, distrust of an all-powerful authority able to overrule the will of the people.
In the end, the U.S. Postal Service is a federal institution, answerable to the people.
That's not to say we agree with this woman's complaints. We were very careful to write the story as objectively as possible. We lay out the facts and let the readers decide.
And therein lies another hot-button issue in this story: The mail carrier to which the complaints were directed chose not to talk, perhaps because he was not authorized to do so or because he didn't want to acknowledge the woman's complaints. The local postmaster also couldn't or wouldn't say much, leaving the federal spokesman as the main voice on that side of the issue.
This kind of response is not uncommon when dealing with large businesses or institutions. We did indicate in the story that we tried to talk to the local carrier, and we named him because not doing so would naturally make readers wonder who he was.
Unfortunately, not hearing from the local carrier made some readers think the story was unfair. Printing the photo of the woman standing next to her "not wanted" poster of the carrier, with his face and name on it, made some readers think we were out to get him.
In truth, we just felt the photo again best illustrated just how far this issue had gone.
One misconception, however, I'd like to address as a result of feedback we've heard on this story: We don't hate the U.S. Postal Service or its people. In fact, this newspaper is one of its biggest customers.
We also know the daunting and often-thankless job that comes with delivering a daily product through rain, snow and sleet.
Most of our customers are very understanding, but, as the old saying goes, it's hard to please everybody all of the time.
Von Pinnon is editor of The Forum. Reach him at (701) 241-5579.