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Published: Sunday, 7/20/2008

Personal blog raises question about objectivity

To blog or not to blog.

That's a question facing newsrooms - and editors and reporters - across the nation. Should reporters be allowed to maintain individual "blogs"? (Blog to the non-Internet savvy, is an abbreviation for "Web log.")

Normally, blogs are sort of a diary, or running commentary, that appears on the Internet. While The Blade has officially sanctioned blogs that can be found on the newspaper's Web site (Toledo blade.com), other reporters and editors maintain their own private blogs.

David Yonke, religion editor for The Blade, has a blog. And Sally Oberski, communications director for the Diocese of Toledo, doesn't like it.

"[In] several instances on his blog, he reflects his personal opinion on many issues of our diocese. I clearly see this as a conflict while he remains as religion editor. While he offers his personal opinion regarding issues of the diocese on his blog, I can't help but think this clouds his objectivity as a writer/editor on the same subjects," she wrote to me.

Ms. Oberski then sent me a long list of examples where she felt Mr. Yonke showed bias. For the record, your ombudsman has no dog in this fight. I am not a Catholic, nor an anti-Catholic, nor a member of any religious faith.

I also do not live in Toledo. But I do have a great interest in fairness and seeing that The Blade is impartial. I reviewed all of Ms. Oberski's examples. Most of her objections I found to be without merit; it isn't clear to me that she understands what journalists do or how they work.

For example, she found bias in this comment by Mr. Yonke, referring to covering a papal visit: "To be honest, I don't particularly enjoy covering such media spectacles because they are crazy scenes with lots of hassles, people pushing and shoving, bad views, or being stuck in a media room."

Well, if that is bias, every reporter I know is biased.

But that description could just as well apply to a day covering the President or with the Obama campaign. There was nothing anti-Catholic in it.

However, I did find a couple cases where I think Mr. Yonke's blog went a little beyond where it should. He referred to the man who accused the Rev. Frank Murd of making improper advances in a hot tub as the priest's "victim." A judge ruled that Father Murd, who admitted to police that he fondled the man, committed no crime because the man had not resisted the priest's advances.

Mr. Yonke also said he hoped his articles "will serve a purpose in reminding priests and seminarians and ministers of their higher calling and deter them from even thinking about committing such crimes or indiscretions in the future."

Here, I think Mr. Yonke went over the line. Journalists ought to be in the position of reporting and perhaps analyzing what happens. It isn't our job to be the thought or moral police. Some might argue that this was something done on Mr. Yonke's private space during his own time and that The Blade has no right to raise any objections to it. But in fact, he is doing it in a public space.

And as the late Paul Block, Jr., the former publisher of The Blade once told me, "To some degree, a reporter is a reporter 24 hours a day."

In your ombudsman's opinion, The Blade needs to develop an official policy for its editorial employees and their personal blogs, one that recognizes the right to self-expression while making sure we do nothing to take away from the perception that we can report any story fairly, without prejudice or bias.

More thoughts on this in my next column.

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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.



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