Last week, in a column on the Democrat-Gazette’s Voices page, deputy editor Frank Fellone offered a logical fallacy posing as an affirmation of a core journalistic value: He argued that the newsgathering part of the paper is unbiased. The Democrat-Gazette puts “public service and straight-arrow news coverage above political gain,” he wrote.
That’s certainly true of much of the paper’s local and state reporting, which is often diligent and fair. But, of course, a newspaper is much more than reporting. Even more important are the decisions editors make on what stories to pursue and pick up from national wires (and those not to) and how they’re presented — in terms of organization, headlines, photos and position within the paper. Often the Democrat-Gazette does not meet Fellone’s standard.
Take a recent article. On Monday, the Democrat-Gazette ran a story called “Occupy Wall Street draws activist critics” on the front page below the fold. The byline read “compiled by Democrat-Gazette staff from wire reports,” which means that it was altered from the original source, in this case the Associated Press. The original AP story opened with this sentence: “To veterans of past social movements, the Occupy Wall Street protests that began in New York and spread nationwide have been a welcome response to corporate greed and the enfeebled economy.”
The Democrat-Gazette’s version tamped down the definitiveness in the last part of the sentence, changing it to “a welcome response to perceived corporate greed and the weakened economy.” It also ran a subhead, “Too loose to last? wonder some,” that doesn’t reflect the views of anyone quoted in the story. In fact, the fifth paragraph of the story notes that the “growing cohesiveness and profile” of the protest has “caught the attention of public intellectuals and veterans of past social movements.” Finally, where other subscribers of the AP elected to accompany the story with a picture of protesters holding signs or a photo of veteran activists, the Democrat-Gazette ran a picture of a man demonstrating how to break free from plastic hand restraints during the protests.
This is a stark example of the flaw in Fellone’s position. The decisions an editor made in the Occupy Wall Street story might not be a reflection the Democrat-Gazette’s conservative editorial posture, but at the very least, they’re the product of an editor bringing his subjective views to a story.
Objectivity doesn’t exist. It’s an empty vow. A smokescreen. The pursuit of it also often results in the most pernicious type of journalism — the “he said, she said” approach, where a journalist merely serves as a conduit for opposing viewpoints, without reporting on their veracity.
Fairness and authority strike me as better ideals for journalism. I’ve been considering assembling a set of reporter guidelines for interns and new hires lately. I think I may borrow some the Voice of San Diego provides new reporters. Here are excerpts of some of my favorites:
• “We are guided by an ability to be transparent and independent, to clearly assess what’s going on in our community and have the courage to plainly state the truth.”
• “Be the expert: Write with authority … The day we write a headline that says: ‘Proposal has pros, cons’ is the day we start dying. There is no such thing as 50/50 balance. There is a truth and we work our damndest to get there.”
• “Tell the truth: This means not being mealy mouthed and not being bias-bullied. Stand up to bias bullies. Tell them why you did something. Let them challenge you on it. Don’t go quote-hunting for something you know to be true and can say yourself. Don’t hide your opinion in the last quote of a story.”