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Published: Sunday, 2/5/2012

COMMENTARY

Many factors go into editors' decisions on coverage

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

For many years, The Blade has worked hard to see that its news coverage is free of partisan bias. There was even a time years ago when the newspaper measured stories about competing candidates with a ruler to make sure they got equal space.

Keeping news coverage balanced is important. That doesn't mean, however, that if the Democrats have a scandal the reporters automatically have to find a Republican one as well.

The reporters just need to keep open minds and cover what happens fairly. Naturally, no two readers agree on the definition of "fair."

But it's important to remember two things -- fairness, which is what I, as the ombudsman, am supposed to monitor, doesn't have anything to do with choosing what stories the paper should focus on.

Some people think The Blade has covered the Seneca County courthouse issue too much. Some think the paper is too concerned with the problems of dogs. Well, that's a matter of interest and taste.

Every year, I get letters and phone calls complaining that the newspaper is neglecting some team, usually the University of Toledo or Bowling Green State University. Mostly, the callers have some conspiracy theory. (Last month, one asked me why the paper had taken all the reporters who used to cover UT and assigned them to cover BGSU. The short and simple answer: They hadn't.)

But if the sports editor thinks one team or another is more worthy of coverage, that isn't necessarily unfair but is that editor's call, based on his news judgment and knowledge of the area.

The editorial pages, or the Pages of Opinion, are possibly the most misunderstood part of the newspaper. The editorials are where the paper expresses the philosophy of the owners and their management team. "Why doesn't the paper run one conservative editorial and one liberal one every day?" one man asked.

Well, that wouldn't say much about the editors' willingness to make decisions. The Blade has a perfect right to take a stand.

The paper does not, however, have a right to be hypocritical, and one longtime critic of the newspaper complained the newspaper is doing just that. He notes that on Christmas Day, David Kushma, the editor of The Blade, cautioned letter writers to "be civil," adding, "Name-calling is not argument. One-word labels are not ideas."

True enough. Yet the writer was upset because the newspaper nine months earlier criticized those "Luddites in Congress, mainly Republicans," who were trying to repeal the law ordering the phasing out of old-fashioned, energy-wasting incandescent light bulbs.

Was Luddite an unfair term of abuse?

Clearly, it can be. But your ombudsman doesn't think so in this case, given that my dictionary defines the modern usage of Luddite as "one who opposes … technological change."

That's exactly what these congressmen were unsuccessfully trying to do. When a description is completely accurate, it is not unfair name-calling. Nor was this an unfair slap at Republicans since all the names I found on the record opposing this bill were, well, Republicans. Incidentally, guess who the president was who signed into law the legislation phasing out the old incandescent light bulbs.

None other than George W. Bush -- a Republican.

As we often say in the news business: You are entitled to your own opinion, but not your own facts. A lady named Bonnie is angry with your ombudsman for a column observing that the United States of America was meant to be a secular, not a religious, nation.

Well, that's the opinion of constitutional experts I have talked to, including Robert Sedler, a distinguished professor of constitutional law at Wayne State University in Detroit. He notes that the First Amendment says that "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof."

Being a secular nation doesn't mean an anti-religious one. Bonnie also believes that the Book of Revelation in the New Testament indicates the anti-Christ will be "a man in his 40s of Muslim descent" and is upset that the newspaper won't report this. (She strongly hints that the evil one might be President Obama.)

Well, I am a wholly secular person myself and don't claim to know what religious prophecies may be true. I do know, however, that there weren't any Muslims when Revelation was written in the first century, AD. The Prophet Muhammad, who is regarded as the founder of the faith, wasn't born until five centuries later.

Reader Robert Avery does have a criticism of the editorial pages I do agree with. He writes, "Unsigned guest editorials puzzle me. Some are attributed to the New York Times or another publication, but others are left truly anonymous. What are we to make of those?"

Editor Kushma explained to me that these are editorials supplied by our sister paper, the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Both papers have a common ownership and the same publisher and editor in chief, John Robinson Block.

Few readers know that, however, and I think it would be worthwhile to mention where the Pittsburgh editorials originate.

Anyone who has 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 email 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. 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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