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Published: 8/12/2012

COMMENTARY

Readers question presidential campaign coverage

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

We are moving into high election season -- and emotions are running high as well. Traditionally, newspapers are ethically supposed to be neutral and fair in their coverage of the news.

Any newspaper can ethically take whatever positions it wishes and endorse any candidate it chooses on the editorial page, as long as that has no effect on how that newspaper covers what is going on.

So how is The Blade doing?

If you are a staunch supporter of one party or one candidate or another, you probably aren't completely happy. That's because you probably see the world through mental glasses giving either President Obama or Mitt Romney a rosy glow. "Why don't you just print exactly what they say?" one lady suggested.

If any editor did that, the candidates' words would quickly fill up the newspaper without shedding much light on anything. Reporters are supposed to be condensers, fact-checkers, and adders of counterpoint and perspective.

David Haase wasn't pleased, for example, with The Blade's coverage of a speech the Republican nominee-to-be made in Bowling Green last month. The story, by Tom Troy, included remarks from the candidate accusing Mr. Obama of "trying to tear America apart." The Republican candidate also was quoted as saying that if he gets two terms in the White House, "we are going to have the world surprised at how dramatic America's comeback was."

Asked for a comment, an Obama spokesman was quoted as saying that Mr. Romney opposes the President's jobs plan "and refuses to offer one of his own."

However, according to Mr. Haase, Mr. Romney did "make five specific points about what is needed to get the economy growing again. Why, he wanted to know, didn't Mr. Troy report that?

Unfortunately, the slogan of any newspaper really should be "all the news that fits, we print."

Mr. Romney did have some general talking points about the economy, such as "take advantage of energy resources" and "open new markets" and "ensure workers have the skills needed by business." They weren't new, however.

Nor were they what amounted to a specific jobs proposal. I agree that it would have been good had the reporter included a sentence or two noting an economic policy Mr. Romney was touting.

But journalism is the "first rough draft of history," as scholars have often said. The newspaper does have an obligation, in my judgment, to give us as detailed as possible a report on the policies of both candidates, as far as they let that be known.

On the other hand, an anonymous caller who supported Mr. Obama thought it was "just horrible" that the same story allowed one Romney supporter to describe the President as a "monster."

Horrible or not, the citizen did say that in a public forum, and the candidate responded (saying, "that's not a term I would use") and in the reporter's judgment, that was worth including.

Newspapers have to trust their reporters to give their readers as representative as possible a selection of what happened, every day, in such an event. Mr. Troy has been doing this work for years.

My opinion is that he works hard to be fair.

Bill Gaetz had a different kind of complaint about politics coverage in The Blade. In a front-page story on Aug. 5, "the statement is made that "the Republican-controlled House and Democrat-led Senate … " He asked, "Shouldn't that be the Democratic-led Senate?

"This is a touchy subject because this abbreviation was originally used by Rush Limbaugh as a derogatory term and seems to have turned into a common practice."

Mr. Gaetz is right about using "Democrat" for "Democratic" being derogatory, but Rush didn't start it. It stems back at least to Wendell Willkie's 1940 presidential campaign.

Republicans have used "Democrat Party" off and on ever since, especially when they want to attack the oppositions.

That doesn't mean The Blade story was meant to be pejorative. But political parties should be given their proper names, and your ombudsman thinks The Blade should stick to Democratic.

Mary Grace Elwell, a polite reader from Perrysburg, takes exception to reporters not accurately describing Toledo neighborhoods. She is especially irked at the overuse of "inner city."

"There must be some way to designate areas correctly and to stop using 'inner city' when the event being reported is nowhere near the "inner city, " she wrote to me.

Dave Murray, The Blade's managing editor, agrees. "The issue Ms. Elwell raises shows that [some of] our reporters need to know the city of Toledo better" and learn its many neighborhoods. The idea of locating where something happens is to give readers a reference point. Locating a site as being in the 'inner city' doesn't do that."

On another topic, Mr. Murray responded to several readers, including Alanson and Judy Willcox, who wondered why The Blade referred to Jerry Sandusky's "adopted son."

Did the newspaper mean to imply "that an adopted child was somehow not as good as a birth child?" Ms. Willcox wanted to know.

Mr. Murray thinks The Blade goofed here as well, though virtually every other media outlet in the nation did the same thing.

"Children are children, no matter how they end up in a family, and we shouldn't identify them as adopted or biological unless there is a good reason to do so, such as a story about in vitro fertilization."

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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