Why can’t the media just be fair?
September 22, 2004
Why can’t the news media be fair?
It’s a question readers, viewers and listeners ask every day. And with the CBS incident of apparently forged memos causing a storm of controversy I like to call Hurricane Dan, editors might have a tendency to board up the windows and head for the basement until the whole thing blows over.
Unfortunately, that’s part of the problem. We get defensive and only add to the distrust people have about newspapers and television.
I know that’s often my first reaction when somebody calls or writes to tell me what a rotten job we’ve done. Of course, many of those calls start with “You bunch of morons at that stupid newspaper, how idiotic can you be ….” Once in awhile I get past that and actually have a constructive conversation.
At the recent Nevada Press Association convention, we listened to Bob Haiman, a former editor of the St. Petersburg Times who now works for the Freedom Forum, a newspaper-industry foundation that concentrates on First Amendment issues and operates the Newseum.
Haiman has been researching and writing about fairness in newspapers for several years. He listed, in this order, how readers described the problem:
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— Factual errors and inaccuracies.
— An unwillingness to admit errors or make corrections.
— Reporters who don’t know enough about the subject or are incompetent.
— Ideological or political bias.
— Cultural bias or insensitivity (often caused by a lack of minorities on staff).
— Not enough “good news.” Too much “bad news.”
— Preying on the weak and defenseless, such as people who aren’t accustomed to speaking to reporters.
— Anonymous sources.
— A reluctance to admit there’s no story.
I found the list to be useful, simply because “inaccuracy” was at the top of the list.
I would have expected “political bias” to be the main complaint, but it was fourth, according to Haiman. Maybe because it’s political season, I tend to think of fairness in the context of whether the newspaper is treating both sides of an issue evenly.
But a lot of readers have a broader definition of fairness. If the newspaper can’t get the facts right – misspelled name, wrong address, bad telephone number – then it doesn’t have much credibility on anything else.
Haiman quoted one reader: “I knew that was wrong the minute I read it … and if they got that wrong, it makes me wonder what else they get wrong.”
Exactly. I’ve said the same thing myself reading a newspaper or watching the TV news. I know that’s what readers think.
Everything else follows from there. We need to do a better job of getting the facts straight the first time. We shouldn’t get defensive about the mistakes we make, so we should be willing – eager, in fact – to correct them.
Reporters and editors should know more about the topics being covered. That includes being aware of the nuances of different cultures, so they reflect them accurately in stories.
I’ve often said bad news is the easy part; there’s no avoiding it. We have to work harder to get the good-news stories into the paper.
In our haste to gather the news and get the photograph and get it into the newspaper on deadline, we do sometimes run roughshod over people who have suddenly become the subject of a news story through no fault of their own. I think we’re pretty understanding here at the Appeal, because it’s still a small town and we have to live with you folks, but it’s always worth a reminder.
As for anonymous sources, newspapers just shouldn’t use them. I don’t think you’ll find them in stories written by Appeal reporters, but we have to keep an eye on the coverage coming out of Washington, D.C.
The idea that newspapers are reluctant to admit there’s no story is an interesting one. This has to do with a tip or allegation, which an editor then instructs a reporter to check out. Sometimes the reporter puts a lot of effort into tracking down the tip, and then we are reluctant to let go without putting something in the newspaper to show we’re doing our jobs.
Frankly, I think the opposite is true at many newspapers. Readers call with what they think should be a news story, and an editor decides it isn’t. We need to be more open to what readers think is the news.
The charge of political or ideological bias – Republican vs. Democrat, liberal vs. conservative – gets an awful lot of attention. Not a week goes by I don’t get a complaint about the Nevada Appeal.
Last week, for example, I got these two responses on subscriber surveys – one on top of the other. “How far right can you get?” “Way too liberal!”
The typical reaction to such comments at a newspaper is, “Well, we must be doing OK because both sides are mad at us.”
That’s not a particularly constructive way to look at it, though. While we’re worrying about treating both sides equally, we really should be concentrating on simply getting the story right.
Do that, and the rest of it pretty much takes care of itself.
Barry Smith is editor of the Nevada Appeal. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 881-1221.