One of the biggest complaints anyone in the news media hears is about what is perceived as bias. Editors everywhere from the New York Times to CNN to The Blade hear from irate readers who say: “Just give me the news, not a bunch of opinions!”
They sometimes have a point. But on the other hand, news analysis is often necessary, and studies have shown that popular columnists are often the most well-read parts of the newspaper. But how does someone distinguish commentary — articles where writers offer their own interpretation and opinion — from straight reporting?
Some think the lines are too blurred. Readers Joann Nardo and John Bibish were along several who objected to an Aug. 17 column by Blade Religion Editor TK Barger, which — gently in my view — questioned the Roman Catholic Church’s practice of venerating fragments of saints’ bones and other religious relics.
“You reported on the relics, but included too much of your beliefs,” Ms. Nardo said. Mr. Bibish thought the article belonged on the Pages of Opinion, saying “the clever mixing of reporting and opinion in this article is disingenuous.”
Mr. Barger himself brought this to my attention — together with what I think would be a good solution. “Readers might benefit from knowing that I write a column about twice a month,” he told me.
“I note that on the Web columns have the word ‘Commentary’ beneath the columnist’s photo, but in print the reader must make the distinction without help,” he said.
Your ombudsman thinks all columns that touch on political, governmental, religious, or business matters should carry a commentary logo, both in print and in cyberspace.
Incidentally, good columns do in fact combine reporting and interpretation and leave the reader feeling he or she learned something. I thought Mr. Barger’s column on relics passed that test, and I especially liked his conclusion that “I don’t want skepticism to block my ability to tell others about people’s faith journeys, to try to explain why we’re different, to limit” the scope of religion reporting.
To which your ombudsman says, amen.
There was a similar case of column confusion in the local news section on Aug. 13. Blade Associate Editor Keith Burris writes a local news column and that day wrote about Mayor Mike Bell’s desire to keep a map of city gang activity from the press.
Toledoan Thomas Schoen wrote that this was “clearly an opinion column and thus should be headlined “Opinion” or “Commentary.” I asked Executive Editor Kurt Franck about this.
He agreed. “We erred,” he told me. The column was supposed to be labeled Commentary, but the label was accidentally left off by the page designer.
There is a continuing national debate over what to call people who are living in this country without proper legal status. Becky Roth was upset this month when a headline referred to “illegal immigrants” being eligible for in-state tuition at the University of Toledo.
“Human beings are not illegal. They may be undocumented or out of legal status, but people are not illegal.” She prefers the term “undocumented immigrant.” This is a problem with which many newspapers are wrestling. Blade Managing Editor Dave Murray noted the newspaper’s decision “has failed to please almost everyone.”
“The right wants us to call them ‘illegal aliens,’ and the left wants us to call them ‘undocumented people,’ but we’ve taken a middle ground and decided to call people who have immigrated to the United States illegally, ‘illegal immigrants,’” he said.
Upon reflection, this makes sense to your ombudsman. However wonderful people may be, and however strongly you feel that the laws should be changed, if you have immigrated to this country illegally, you are an “illegal immigrant.”
That is actually a more correct term than “undocumented,” since many of these folks do have documents; just not the ones that would allow them to live in this country.
I do feel, however, that care should be taken not to stigmatize such folks in stories or headlines, beyond noting their immigration status. The laws may someday be changed, and we might remember that back in the 1920s, every single person who sold anyone a glass of beer, wine, or liquor was breaking federal law.
In my last column, I discussed the complaints of an anti-TARTA group in Rossford that was upset that the writer of an editorial against its efforts had not interviewed them about their position.
My opinion was that while they would have been correct if this was a news story, The Blade’s editorial was expressing the newspaper’s opinion based on the editorial board’s philosophy.
Jeff Gerritt, the deputy editorial page editor, later told me that he actually crafted the editorial. He said “the reason I didn’t feel the need to talk with them was not that this is commentary … but because I already knew what, officially, their position was.
“They had told a Blade reporter that the issue was not TARTA but representative government, which of course we disagreed with.”
Mr. Gerritt noted that in a similar issue involving Spencer Township, he did interview the people involved because he needed more information. Mr. Gerritt wanted to note that the editorial writers do whatever they need to “clearly and fairly” state the positions of all sides in any issues, and he felt it important to make that clear.
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.