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Laurel Museum exhibit chronicles community news

After the Laurel Historical Society acquired a digitized collection of Laurel Leaders in 2013, director Lindsey Baker knew it would be the focal point of the Laurel Museum's next exhibit.

But she didn't know how.

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At first, she said, it started out as an exhibit investigating some of Laurel's most dastardly crimes and devastating fires – of which there are surprisingly many – as chronicled in newspapers, but soon she and others on the exhibit committee realized it wasn't going to work.

"We were worried that the direction we were taking was a little too dark, and we wanted to make it a little bit more positive," she said.

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Instead, the focus shifted from the events themselves to how they were covered and communicated to the community through newspapers. The end result is the exhibit that debuted Feb. 8, called "Ripped from the Headlines: Laurel in the News."

The exhibit, which continues through Dec. 20 at the Laurel Museum, 817 Main St., is divided into sections named for different types of news: the Firehouse Beat, the Disaster Beat, the National News Desk, the Police Blotter, the Bad News Beat and on the Lighter Side.

Each section has some historical artifacts – donated by the city government and police and fire departments – and a series of panels designed by "Lost Laurel" blogger Richard Friend, who is a graphic designer by trade.

Baker said the panel-heavy exhibit focuses predominantly on the coverage by the Laurel Leader, which was founded in 1897.

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She said it also includes coverage from other outlets, including The Baltimore Sun, The Washington Post, The Gazette, The Sentinel and the Free Quill.

"We tried to focus on the Leader as much as possible, and we realized that narrowed the lens of what we were looking at," she said.

She said a key theme explored by the exhibit is the role of the media in the community, as well as how news is covered. The exhibit encourages viewers to approach each panel and news event analytically, to look at how different outlets covered major events.

"A hot topic right now is how news is covered, and we wanted to acknowledge it's not just something that's happening now, it's happened as long as people have been reporting the news," Baker said.

Baker pointed to the coverage of the shooting of then-Alabama governor and presidential candidate George Wallace as an example of different approaches.

"When the Leader is covering it there was more focus on how it affected the community, while the national coverage was how does this affect the presidential election and how does this affect Wallace's life," she said.

The exhibit also attempts to parse out bias, including what appears to be skewed reporting on race issues from the 1950s through the 1970s. In keeping with the newspaper-theme, a panel titled "Editorial: Integration" discusses how the topic was covered in the Leader.

"If you look in the editorial section [of the Leader] the week after the Brown vs. Board decision [in 1954], it's not mentioned at all," said Baker. "We thought that was really interesting. When they were making decisions about what schools were going to be integrated, it was reported very positively in the 1950s. And we wondered is that true? Was it that acceptable to the community?"

Darker side of news

While the exhibit is decidedly less dark than the original idea, Baker said much of the it focuses on spot news, which tends to skew toward tragedy.

"A lot of what is covered in any newspaper is not the most positive stuff," Baker said. "We could've maybe geared it toward human interest stories, but we didn't go that direction."

Major events covered in the exhibit are a 1917 fire that burned the Academy of Music, an early city landmark; Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972, which flooded the city and caused more than $1 million in damages; the Wallace shooting; and the 1982 disappearance and death of 27-year-old Stefanie Watson – the case remained cold until a DNA test in 2013 resulted in charges against John Ernest Walsh, currently incarcerated on rape charges.

Unlike past museum exhibits, "Ripped from the Headlines" relies heavily on the written word. According to Friend, who designed the more than 50 panels, creating the right layout and conveying the right tone were key.

"I was concerned because there wasn't a lot of artifacts to be displayed," he said. "This time it was the news stories that would have to tell the story; everything is going to depend on these panels."

Friend said the panels included a mix of source text and summary by the museum. They all have large, visible headlines and photos, which he said are meant to draw people to the section.

"A good poster is supposed to bring you in and draw you across from the room," he said.

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