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Published: Sunday, 10/27/2013 - Updated: 9 months ago

COMMENTARY

News states the facts; editorials take a position

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN

What is the difference between an editorial and a news story?

Some readers aren’t too clear — and that’s hardly their fault. Schools don’t teach a required course in “How to understand newspapers.” Your ombudsman is reminded of this every time election season rolls around. “You can’t tell me that your paper isn’t biased,” one man told me on the phone. “They came right out and said to vote for (Toledo Municipal Court Judge) Joshua Lanzinger.”

Well, yes, the newspaper did, in what is known as an endorsement editorial. Editorials, which usually appear only in The Blade’s Pages of Opinion, are the traditional way newspapers express their opinion on issues and candidates.

The owners of the newspaper have the ultimate say if they choose to, of course, but the opinions expressed are usually those of the editorial board, a team of seasoned journalists who study and analyze the news.

Away from the editorial page, newspapers are supposed to play it straight down the middle — digging out and giving you the news, analyzing what it means, yes. But not taking sides.

The Pages of Opinion are where editorial boards can do that. But is there still an obligation to be fair? Yes, there is. It would be unethical if an endorsement editorial, say, contained false or outrageous information, or improperly slanted one set of facts,

The late William Safire, a highly respected conservative columnist for the New York Times, used to call what he did “opinionated reporting.” While his biases were clear, he dug out facts and tried to have every column contain new information.

Newspaper editorials strive to do that. Ronald J. Mayle had a question, however, about the Oct. 17 Lanzinger editorial. “In endorsing a man who was appointed a month ago to Toledo Municipal Court with no prior experience …

“The Blade stated he had ‘earned’ a full term. What does it take doing in office to “earn” another term?”

That is a reasonable question. The Blade, like many other newspapers, tends to believe that judges ought not to be lightly removed. Insofar as possible, justice should not be dependent on the whims of any particular election.

Mr. Mayle then asked how The Blade could argue that Mr. Lanzinger had earned a second term after a month on the job, while saying that after four years, Mayor Bell had not.

That too may be a good question, but for the editorial board, not your ombudsman. As I’ve noted, those running The Blade have a right to express their opinions — properly labeled as such.

● Speaking of bias … one Matt Zaleski complained that “recently, Ignazio Messina wrote two stories on the supposed [city] $48 million deficit that Toledo Mayor Mike Bell said existed,” when he took office in 2010. Days later, “a second story cited the Toledo Police Patrolmen’s Association president, Dan Wagner, as saying the [deficit] never existed. Yet The Blade stood by its original story.”

Michael Collins, Mr. Bell’s opponent, has charged the deficit was only $8 million. Mr. Zaleski, whose wife’s company handles media buys for the Collins campaign, thought The Blade reporter should have included his candidate’s claim.

Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said “Mr. Messina’s reporting on the city deficit dispute is exactly the kind of story needed to sort out the claims and counterclaims in this year’s mayor’s race.

“He didn’t make it up, or editorialize about the issue, but did what a good reporter does — use city records from the time to confirm what he knew from his own reporting to be true — that Mayor Mike Bell did face a $48 million deficit his first year in office.”

Incidentally, Mr. Messina checked and notes that according to the mayor’s office “Neither Mr. Collins or Mr. Zaleski have ever requested to see the documents I looked at for those stories.”

● Rosemary Galdys of Holland, Ohio doesn’t like the fact that the newspaper lists dogs put to death by the Lucas County Dog Warden’s Office under the headline: Dogs Killed.

She would like to see it be titled “‘dogs euthanized’ for a kinder, more humane explanation of terminating the animal’s life.”

Your ombudsman understands where she is coming from; I am writing this with my Australian Shepherd lying next to my desk, fast asleep. He is as much a member of the family as I am.

But the fact is that many dogs are being killed, and this is a stark failure, most of the time, of human beings who have abused, improperly bred and failed to socialize them.

The Blade runs this account to call attention to this problem, and I think it is appropriate the wording is stark — and accurate.

George Orwell noted long ago that dictatorships love to use soft words to cover harsh truths, like “liquidate” for “murder.”

In this case, what is happening is most accurately summed up by the headline: Dogs Killed.

● 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 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. 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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