Thursday, Apr 19, 2018
One of America's Great Newspapers ~ Toledo, Ohio

Jack Lessenberry

Mistakes occur, but they don't constitute a secret plot

The people who work for this newspaper make mistakes.

That does not, however, make them bad, wrong, or evil.

Nor are they agents of a secret socialist agenda to take over the planet, as some readers seem to believe.

What it does mean is that they are human beings. Journalism is neither rocket science, as the old clich goes, nor brain surgery. I can say that because over the years I have done stories about both scientists and brain surgeons, and I remain in awe of them.

But daily newspaper journalism does involve doing jobs under constant deadline pressure. There is usually more news to cover, write, photograph, and fit onto pages than The Blade can properly cover. Nor does the paper have enough staff to cover all the news.

So sometimes, people try to do too much. And mistakes happen. (I’ve made my share, too.) I have now been ombudsman for this paper for more than a decade. In all that time, I have only seen two cases of major ethical failings. One involved a reporter who sabotaged his colleagues’ attempt to win a major journalism award by writing an anonymous letter, and the other regarded a photographer who falsified images.

Both no longer had jobs after their cases were thoroughly investigated. Many readers, however, think the paper has other hidden agendas. Most often, they suspect liberal bias in the news columns.

Possibly that’s because The Blade has endorsed Democratic nominees for president in the last five elections. However, I’ve never seen a case where I thought a reporter or an editor was injecting their personal partisan political bias into a story. If any did occur, the odds are that an editor would catch it long before anything appeared in print.

Occasionally editors have left an official's political party out of a story when it should have been noted, and I have commented on this. But this has always seemed to me to be carelessness, rather than bias.

That doesn't mean this might not happen someday. You learn in journalism never to say never. I always welcome hearing from anyone who thinks they've found something suspicious. Likewise, if anyone thinks they see signs of plagiarism — a case where something in this paper was taken verbatim from another source without attribution — I want to know.

There's also a difference between unfairness and personal preference. No two editors would design a front-page exactly the same way. The Blade has a great interest in dogs and gives stories involving dogs, especially dogs in county custody, a lot more prominence than most newspapers might. Does that seem odd to some?

Perhaps. But I've also known an editor at another paper who didn't believe that any animal story should ever appear on the front page.

As long as the stories are being told fairly, and facts are not being suppressed, there is nothing inherently unethical about intense coverage of any issue; this is exactly what the Washington Post did — with similar criticism — during the Watergate scandal. The treatment of animals, and the way the county handles them, is also a political and governmental issue.

A number of folks who write letters to the editor have complained that in the editing process The Blade has distorted their meaning. I've examined nearly two dozen such cases. In one instance this was indeed the case, and The Blade issued a correction and apologized for the editing error.

Otherwise, however, I didn't find their complaint justified. Editor David Kushma tells me that readers who keep their comments clear and concise and clearly to the point have the best shot at having their words appear much the same way as they were written.

Some readers understand this better than others. George Hartman is one who was a good sport about this. He thought that the editing of a letter he wrote about the "mosque at ground zero," changed the meaning of his last sentence.

I studied both versions and told him I thought The Blade had made his point clearer, rather than changing the meaning.

Mr. Hartman wrote back, "My wife agrees with you … but, hey, what do I know? My degree is in engineering. I'll be very careful with punctuation in the future."

Actually, I thought his letter was one of the best and most thoughtful I'd read in The Blade. By the way, Mr. Hartman, we professional writers also don't always like being edited either.

Anyone who as a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610, or e-mail me at 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. Reminder, however: If you don't leave me an e-mail address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

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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