The most basic notion to explain how a newspaper can properly be both neutral and opinionated is to understand that structurally newspapers have two distinct components.
By Patricia Graham, Brunswick News Ombudswoman
Covering elections brings special challenges to newsrooms. With so much at stake, parties and candidates put a lot of effort into managing the message and are acutely attuned to media coverage. Engaged readers can also be quick to point out actual or perceived imbalances in coverage.
But how do these things work in practice, and what does a newsroom need to do to ensure its coverage meets the responsible journalistic standards to which our readers, including those involved in political campaigns, are entitled?
I’m going to have to answer this question in two columns; this week I’ll delve into newspaper structure and different types of content in both print and online. Next week I’ll talk about guidelines for covering elections.
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Brunswick News’ Statement of Journalistic Policies and Practices contains this statement:
We regard our newspapers as public meeting places. We believe that these newspapers can best contribute to the public good by pursuing an editorial policy of political neutrality – by acting as hosts of political debates rather than as partisan participants in them. In our role as moderator, we must strive to cover the different sides of the divisive issues on which we report. This is a fundamental principle of responsible journalism – and a principle that all Brunswick News writers and editors must consistently try to reflect in the stories they produce and in the photographs they publish.
These are very fine principles. Yet the precepts of balance and political neutrality can be confusing to some readers when they come across content that clearly has an opinion.
Which brings me to something else the Statement of Journalistic Policies and Practices says:
This principle does not limit in any way the right of our newspapers vigorously to champion causes, on the editorial page, which they believe are in the best interests of the people of New Brunswick or the people of their own communities. It does require that they do so without partisan purpose. Our objective in publishing editorials with conviction is to evaluate the issues of the day as matters of public-policy discussion, not of partisan political debate.
Clear as mud at this point? I thought so.
The most basic notion to explain how a newspaper can properly be both neutral and opinionated is to understand that structurally newspapers have two distinct components. There are the news pages first and foremost, and then there are the editorial and opinion pages, the latter called op ed pages in industry jargon.
Let’s start with the news pages, which appear in all sections and are populated primarily by news stories, which cover things that are happening, and which must be objective, fair and balanced. That “editorial policy of political neutrality” you read about earlier applies to all news stories. “Balance” can’t always be achieved within one particular story; it is acceptable if balance is achieved over a reasonable period of time.
The editorial and op ed pages are a different matter. The editorial page is the home of the “editorials”, which represent the institutional opinion of the newspaper. Sometimes readers complain that they are anonymous, but the editorials are not signed because they represent the institutional opinion of the newspaper, not the opinion of the writer. Newspapers have "editorial boards" and although the makeup can vary slightly from one publication to another, generally the publisher, editor-in-chief (or senior newsroom editor, whatever the title) and one or more editorial writers are members of the board. Each day the board discusses the issues of the day and arrives at the newspaper's opinion. The individual who writes the editorial may or may not agree with that opinion, but whether or not they do it is not their opinion they are expressing, it is the view of the newspaper. Under these circumstances it would be misleading to attach their signature to the editorial.
On these pages you’ll also find letters to the editor, a political cartoon and columns or commentary pieces. All of these can and usually do contain opinion. That does not signal bias. This is a discrete area of the newspaper, separate from the news pages, that is reserved expressly for the expression of opinion on the issues of the day.
Because things are never simple, however, there are a couple more types of content. Columns, which may contain an opinion, can show up anywhere in a newspaper. The key is that they must be clearly and consistently identified. The traditional identifier is a photo of the writer, or labels such as “opinion”, “column” or “commentary”.
There are also reviews, in arts and entertainment, of movies, books, plays, etc. and things like advice columns in areas such as gardening, technology, workplace, etc. Finally, unless I’ve forgotten something, there are feature stories, often described as stories about “softer” news, although I prefer the description of them simply as human-interest stories. These often highlight an individual, or focus on an issue of public interest that may or may not be in the news. Fine writing is a hallmark of these more creative pieces.
There. Your newspaper (in print or online) in a nutshell. Next week: election coverage. Meantime, you can contact me at email@example.com.
This column was originally published by BNI and republished here with Graham's permission.
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