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Published: Sunday, 5/11/2008

What's the difference between an analysis and an opinion?

Toledoan John Kirkbride asked that in connection with an Associated Press article called "Fact Check" in the April 30 edition.

"It was well-written and an honest assessment. However, should it have been in the Pages of Opinion? It was an analysis, rather than a report."

That is an entirely reasonable question. I think that sometimes those of us who have spent our lives in the newspaper business automatically assume that every reader automatically understands the way we do things.

The pages of opinion are designed to contain articles that are clearly inspired and colored by points of view. These include the unsigned editorials, which represent the policy of the newspaper. There are letters to the editor, which are the opinions of our readers. Then there are a series of columns, by a mix of authors with different backgrounds and expertise.

The news pages are supposed to be based strictly on presenting facts in a coherent way that makes sense to the reader and highlights their importance and significance. We say that journalists aren't supposed to inject their opinions into what they write, but that isn't strictly true.

Journalists have to use their opinions to sort out the significant and relevant (the President announced he was declaring war) from the insignificant (he was wearing a powder blue tie and I ate oatmeal that day.)

What we aren't supposed to do is inject our ideology or political agenda into what we cover. What about news analyses?

Very often they are necessary, to provide background and context and to serve as a fact check on what newsmakers say. Example: Politician A says that if he is elected, he will sharply cut taxes, but will provide the same level of services, and this will stimulate the economy so much that this won't add to the deficit.

Politicians say things like that all the time. Not only is it legitimate, but I would argue that it is a journalist's duty to shed light on the subject by A) explaining how such a proposal would work, and B) interviewing experts in the field to see if they think the official's proposal is reasonable. In fact, the example I've given here is a real one; it is what Ronald Reagan announced he would do when he was elected President in 1980.

His policies did in fact stimulate growth but, contrary to what he said, produced some of the biggest budget deficits in history. That choice may have been worth making, but journalists owe it to their readers to give them as much knowledge about what is at stake as possible.

That's what we need news analysis stories to do on all levels - federal, state, and local. That is also something, by the way, that newspapers can do far better than any other medium. TV can tell you, say, that Mayor Carty Finkbeiner wants a new levy for this and that. But it takes a newspaper to explain how it would work in enough detail so you can figure out how much it will cost you.

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Matthew Smith of Holland, Ohio, is correctly irked that The Blade has been sloppy about including the partisan affiliation of politicians in trouble.

This time it was in connection with a wire story about the governor of West Virginia, Joe Manchin, whose daughter was awarded a master's degree from West Virginia University even though she didn't take the necessary classes.

"Somehow you always mention when a Republican (gets in trouble) but completely forgot to mention the political party of Governor Manchin. By the way, he is a Democrat," Mr. Smith wrote.

Well, yes he is. Frankly, The Blade frequently has been too careless about including the political party of some politicians who have behaved scandalously, though I am convinced this is more a matter of sloppiness than ideology. In this case, the initial wire story about the West Virginia scandal did not mention the governor's political party. That may be because it wasn't - and isn't - clear whether he was directly involved. True, it did involve his daughter.

And she was awarded the degree by the man her father installed as president of West Virginia University, Mike Garrison. This seems to have been clearly wrong, but it wasn't clear that the governor was involved in having this happen, though there is certainly reason to suspect cronyism.

Nor are events in West Virginia in The Blade's immediate coverage area. I do think any further stories about the case should mention that the governor is a Democrat. A politician's party is part of his identity. And any time a politician is in a story, mentioning his party is usually a completely relevant thing.

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Anyone with a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade, 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, OH 43660, or at my Detroit office, 189 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at OMBLADE@aol.com.

I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.



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