Column: A newfound soft spot for people caught up in news

As I get older and creakier, one troubling thing I notice besides an expanding waistline, damn it (back trouble has ruined my gym drill, temporarily, I hope), is an expanding soft spot for people who get caught up in the news.

Editing an Appeals Board story this week, I related completely to the complaints of two people who told the board that their neighbors — who need the board’s approval to expand their house -— keep a lot of lights on at night, spoiling one of the pleasures of country living: seeing the stars in the night sky.

In recent years, I’ve noticed that the younger city folks now buying vacation homes in my neighborhood not far from here love lots of outdoor lights. One neighbor put double floodlights over his garage and aimed them so they illuminate the entire side of our house. That’s where the bedrooms are. Activated by a motion detector, the lights go on whenever a deer walks by, which happens 20 times a day, or whenever it’s windy. Sometimes the neighbors put them on manually and forget to turn them off when they go back to the city.

Subtle comments didn’t help and, frankly, I didn’t want a war with my neighbor so I didn’t push the issue. Happily, they’re putting on an addition that required the removal of the lights.

Next door to that neighbor is a house that a developer turned into a virtual airport when he renovated it a few years ago. It’s on a modest lot but it has bright white lights lining each side of its little driveway. They go on every night, even when the house is unoccupied. Along with lights on stanchions and floodlights on the house, the place is lit up like Luna Park or Kennedy Airport. Forget the moths. I’m afraid it will draw a 747 one of these days.

All the new lighting on our formerly pitch-dark street took a while to accept, much less get used to. I miss the days when a few soft lamps glowed through scattered windows in our dark neighborhood.

As for our light-bothered Shelter Islanders, I don’t know if their complaint to the Appeals Board was reasonable or justified. I don’t know if their neighbors really do keep a lot of outdoor lights on at night and I don’t know how bright they are. But I do know the neighbors made their complaints at a public hearing, at which the public’s business was being conducted, and those complaints are part of the public record.

There are sometimes gray areas in the news business when it comes to reporting on peoples’ personal lives and their private affairs. At the Reporter, unlike gossip rags or Hollywood TV shows, we stay away from that stuff unless there’s a clear and pressing public issue at stake. Issues raised at public meetings are something else. For a small-town community newspaper, they’re the news.

I can’t help feeling some sympathy for the couple who sooner or later discovers that their outdoor lighting habits have become fodder for the web and the weekly paper. Maybe it happens after a long drive out from the city on the LIE on a Friday night, when finally there’s time to sit back and take a look through the Reporter they brought out with them, a week behind the current issue.

“Oh my God,” I can just hear one spouse saying to the other.

And so ends one quiet, happy night back in the country as it hits a wall of angst and anger.

One target for the anger could be the Reporter. Why didn’t we get their side of the story? Why didn’t we give them a chance to respond?

As impossible — and often inappropriate — as that is for us to do with every topic that comes up at a pubic meeting, I understand the frustration and resentment. There just isn’t the time or the staff to do it or the space in the paper to run it. More important, it rarely makes sense to elevate every complaint or charge made during a public discussion or debate to the level of major news requiring full investigation.

Does that mean we should ignore it completely? Should we pretend it didn’t come up? I don’t think anybody wants their newspaper to make Swiss cheese out of its public events and meetings coverage. Our first duty here — a duty that time and staffing sometimes limits us to — is to let people know what happened at a public meeting. If there’s important news that requires further reporting, we’ll do all we can on it in the time we have. But a couple of neighbors saying they have a problem with somebody else’s outdoor lighting isn’t a topic to spend a lot of time on.

It is what it is.

As Supervisor Jim Dougherty commented at a Town Board meeting at which officials discussed a citizen’s public complaint about alleged police intimidation, sometimes democracy — a system that requires open meetings — can get a bit messy. That’s true as well for the news business, which is a vital element of that messy system.

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