It’s tough to turn on a television “news” talk show and not hear someone complaining of bias in the news industry. (We’ll let pass for now that having a talking head on a news show, any news show, complain about bias in news coverage brings to mind the pot/kettle scenario.)
The perception that news coverage is biased strikes a critical blow to our core value -- credibility -- and I can say without reservation that The Sun News works hard to play issues down the middle, especially when it comes to politics. (And in coverage of USC and Clemson, a topic some take far more seriously than presidential elections, judging by my email.)
That is not to say that we don’t sometimes make mistakes in our story selection, headline word choice or photo selection. It also doesn’t mean that robo-reporters with no opinions or feelings of their own provide coverage. It brings to mind an argument I had with a more experienced journalist many years ago who claimed there is no such thing as objectivity.
Not true, the younger me sputtered, incredulous. All journalists are always objective. That’s what makes them journalists, I said.
To his credit, he did not laugh at my naiveté for more than 5 minutes. And then he said something that I have come to understand is really the core of our credibility.
No one can completely lock away their thoughts and opinions, not even the most committed of journalists, he said. That doesn’t mean they can’t be fair, or that their coverage can’t present all sides fairly.
That’s our mission, every day. To demonstrate what we do to achieve it, I’m going to answer a few questions I received recently from a thoughtful reader. I know this won’t answer everything for everyone, so expect this to be an ongoing conversation.
Q | Is there some definition of “journalistic integrity” that is a principle to live by?
A | We have a lengthy ethics policy for newsroom employees and I won’t repeat all of it here, but this introduction to the policy, and the section on fairness should provide some sense of our commitment:
As journalists, our mission is to shine light in dark places, provide an accurate portrait of the community and tell compelling stories. Our profession was founded on the public’s trust, and thus we must preserve it.
A profession that subjects people and institutions to intense and constant scrutiny must itself maintain the highest of principles. Conflicts of interest, or the appearance thereof, erode the public’s trust and undermine the mission of our work.
-- Fairness: We must make every effort to report all sides of every issue, no matter how mundane the subject may seem. Toward this goal, we must give each side of an issue an equal chance to speak. We must also be fair in our presentation of the issue, ensuring that both the structure and content of the story is balanced. Avoid using prejudicial terms such as "claimed" and "alleged." In the event a party is unable or unwilling to comment, we should specify that in the story.
Q | At what point is a writer held accountable for omission of facts and using only biased sources and how do you ensure your staff writers live by this principle?
A | First, let me explain the difference between news coverage, local opinion columns and columns and letters that appear on our editorial page.
• News reporters are required to contact, or attempt to contact, the key stakeholders in a specific topic. For example, an article over a proposed tax increase would include comments from those in favor, against and those who will be most affected by it.
• Local news columnists, such as Issac Bailey, have a different task. Their job is to voice an opinion on issues, most of them local. These columns can include interviews with stakeholders, out-of-the-area experts and observers and usually contain some kind of call to action. The idea isn’t so much to change someone’s mind about an issue, but to provide another lens through which to consider it.
• Items on the editorial and op-ed pages, including letters and national columns, do reflect the writer’s opinion. The headlines on these items also reflect the opinions presented in the work, which means that sometimes they criticize President Obama, sometimes they complain about former Gov. Mitt Romney, and sometimes they cry foul over our coverage.
News reporters who show a pattern of incomplete reporting, whether it is because of a personal opinion or simply because they aren’t living up to professional expectations, become, as the Human Resources experts say, a personnel issue, and one we take quite seriously because it can erode our credibility.
Keep in mind, however, in these days of reporting stories bit by bit online as they develop, the early version of a breaking news post rarely includes all of the information or answers all of the questions. For example, commenters frequently complain that we don’t say why someone committed a crime, or how many suspects are being sought. That is because police can’t, or won’t say, not because of laziness on the part of the reporter.
I hope that at least provides some insight into how we do what we do. I invite readers who want to sit in on one of our news meetings to contact me and I’ll arrange a visit so you can hear the conversations we have as we decide what stories go where each day.
Meanwhile, thanks for raising the questions, and for reading my responses. I’ll try to tackle more of these issues, including how blogs fit into the puzzle, in my next column.
Contact CAROLYN CALLISON MURRAY at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at TSN_ccmurray.