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Tuesday, September 23, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 5/11/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

COMMENTARY

Editing change in dog-kill story strayed over the line

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
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Reader Abby Flahie wrote, “I think I can recognize opinion when I hear it. Sometimes — often — I think, The Blade puts forth their opinion via the choice of news that it covers.”

Does your ombudsman think she is right about that?

Up to a point, yes. All newspapers make decisions about what to cover, based on what their editors think important. But choosing what to cover is neither necessarily bad nor unfair. Newspapers have distinct personalities, audiences, and agendas.

A fatal car accident in Maumee would get considerable coverage in The Blade — but little or no coverage in, say, Baltimore. The Wall Street Journal emphasizes financial news more than most other daily newspapers. The New York Times does national and foreign news. Other papers stress other things.

Ms. Flahie went on to say specifically what she meant: “I can’t imagine any other major city’s newspaper that would give so much news space to dogs. Usually those are straight news stories … [but] this week the coverage crossed the line.”

By crossed the line, she meant mixing opinion with news. The story in question ran April 28 under the headline, “More food guarders killed than saved,” and was about policies concerning which dogs are killed by Lucas County Canine Care & Control.

The paragraph she most objected to said this: “With the restrictions that Ms. [Julie] Lyle has placed on the pilot program, which was recommended by Mrs. [Carol] Contrada, it would seem Ms. Lyle has accepted that many of the dogs in her care must be killed. At every turn she has a reason why she must kill dogs at the county shelter, but her usual fall-back position is “public safety.”

Abby Flahie complained “this reads like a lot of opinion.”

Your ombudsman agrees. That was subjective language, which made it look like the reporter was sarcastically passing judgment on Ms. Lyle. As it turns out, this was not the reporter’s fault but was the result of an editing error. A better way to do this could have been to have asked Ms. Lyle whether she was resigned to such a high percentage of failure and why she felt so many dogs had to die.

Then, she could have been quoted directly.

Your ombudsman offers no opinion as to whether The Blade gives too much coverage to dog-related issues. That isn’t my call.

But I do think any story, whether about dogs, gun control, or opera, needs to follow the basic rules of fair and impartial reporting, and the language here strayed over the line.

■ Columns are ethically different from news stories. While columnists are allowed to express her or his opinion, they still have to be fair. Toledoan Christine Holliday objected to Keith Burris’ April 27 column about former Mayor Jack Ford possibly running for the Ohio Senate. “My problem is with one of the paragraphs that explains one of Ford’s motives for considering a run,” she said.

The paragraph began, “Second, he is concerned with the Republican Party’s attempt to suppress the black vote. He would like to be a voice of angry vigilance on this issue.

Ms. Holliday was unhappy because Mr. Burris “does not say that Ford’s opinion is that the Republican Party is attempting to suppress the black vote. Rather, he writes as if it is a fact.”

Again, your ombudsman has to say that this reader has a point. In my opinion, the columnist ought to have written something like “Mayor Ford believes that the Ohio Republican Party has been trying to suppress the black vote,” rather than imply this is settled fact.

■ Don Gozdowski asks, “I was wondering what stance the ‘media’ take on staging pictures?” He questioned a photo in the April 27 paper that showed two brothers changing a tire on a car, in a story by Taylor Dungjen looking back at gang-related issues.

Because there is no grease visible, the reader argued that the man “is either the cleanest mechanic on the planet, or the picture was staged … is there any policy concerning this?” he asked.

That’s an easy question to answer; ethically, staging pictures of anything like a news event is totally unethical — and against The Blade’s policies. Dave Murray, The Blade’s managing editor, said, “The Blade did not ask Aaron Belton and his brother, Chris, to pose for photos. They were actually working on Chris’s vehicle” when the reporter and photographer went to interview them.

“The Blade is not in the practice of posing photos, other than when we are taking team photos in sports,” Mr. Murray said.

Journalism — both words and images — is supposed to be the most accurate possible representation of reality. Seven years ago, an award-winning photographer with the paper was discovered to have altered some images and staged others.

That ended his Blade career.

■ Toledoan Steve Dartt poses an interesting question: “Why does The Blade, among other media outlets, refer to President Obama as an ‘African-American’ when in fact he is of mixed race?

The answer is that Barack Obama has long identified himself as black, or African-American. During his first campaign for president in 2008, he was asked about this. “I’m not sure I decided it,” he said.

“I think, you know, if you look African-American in this society, you are treated as an African-American.” As a general rule, The Blade lets people decide  how they wish to be identified.

■ From time to time, readers ask me to “make” The Blade cover something. Bob Moyers, for example, recently asked me to have the newspaper write about his “Be Healthy Plan for Happy People.”

I have no authority to direct any kind of coverage. I do tell editors if I hear about something that might be a story — but in most cases, readers will be better off and get a faster response if they contact the city desk of The Blade themselves.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in this newspaper is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 555 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 the head of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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