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Thursday, November 27, 2014
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Published: Sunday, 7/13/2014 - Updated: 4 months ago

COMMENTARY

Wire service stories shouldn’t mix news, analysis

BY JACK LESSENBERRY
BLADE OMBUDSMAN
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For well over a century, much of the national and foreign news in The Blade — and every other daily newspaper — comes from what are called “wire services,” primarily, the Associated Press, or AP.

Papers pay a fee to belong to the AP, a news cooperative service founded in 1848, and share their stories with it. In return, The Blade gets access to stories from around the nation and the world, both from other member newspapers and from a network of full-time correspondents who work for the AP in countries worldwide.

Reader Barbara Mann asked an interesting question about this: “Is it possible for The Blade, before it prints a wire story, to edit out all the gratuitous spins in it?” She specifically was referring to a story that appeared on Page A4, Friday, June 27, under the headline “Obama puts focus on everyday Americans.”

What bothered her was that “suddenly, near the bottom, there is a paragraph of analysis including two bullet points.”

Ms. Mann added. “I have nothing against news analysis, just so long as it appears clearly labeled as such.”

Your ombudsman thinks she has a point. First of all, newspapers do have both a right and a need to edit dispatches they receive from the wire services; for one thing, they have to fit into the space available. Newspapers often combine wire service reports with their own reporting to give the reader the fullest possible picture.

That’s perfectly ethical too, as long as the combined product is clearly labeled as such. The “Obama puts focus” story is clearly sort of a hybrid between news and analysis; it described a series of town hall meetings the President is having and then suddenly asserts that this is because “his influence is waning two years into his last term.”

Your ombudsman was in fact a wire editor, once upon a time. Had I been editing this story, I don’t think I would have labeled the story “news analysis,” because, as Ms. Mann correctly noted, most of it isn’t. I would have smoothed over and qualified the language here, making it say something like “some think this is happening because his influence may be waning …”

This is, in fact, the kind of thing editors do. Every writer needs an editor, and editors are human, and occasionally aren’t perfect.

Considering the volume of material most editors have to process on any given day, they usually do a superb job.

From time to time, readers are curious about the unsigned articles that appear daily on the left hand side of the Pages of Opinion. “Who writes them?” Reader Bob Holup asked me.

“Who comes up with the subject of these articles? If this all comes about by an editorial committee could there be a note of authorship stating who is on the committee?” he asked, admitting honestly, “What I am admitting to you is that I know absolutely nothing about how all of this works.”

Well, no shame in that. Most people did not go to journalism school, and I have often thought we journalists should do a better job explaining what we do. David Kushma, the editor of The Blade, did an excellent job explaining how this works in a column published Feb. 14, 2010, and he has given me permission to quote from it here.

“Our editorials aren’t signed because they don’t have individual authors. They represent the official opinion of The Blade as a newspaper, and the collective judgment of our editorial board.”

Sometimes more than one person does the writing. If they were signed, some might see them as the opinion of the author. As Mr. Kushma noted, “our editorials are the product of an institutional consensus, not merely a collection of individual viewpoints.”

Naturally, The Blade’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, also consults daily with Mr. Kushma. That doesn’t mean Mr. Block just dictates to the staff; the process is, on all levels, an intellectual give-and-take.

Nor does this collective decision-making mean nobody is responsible for their fairness and accuracy; in the final analysis, Mr. Kushma noted, “If you want to hold someone personally responsible for everything that appears on The Blade’s opinion pages,” he is the man in charge.

The Blade has a team that includes Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jeff Gerritt and several associate editors who write editorials. But none of the news staff, from Executive Editor Kurt Franck on through the ranks, is involved at all in forming or writing the newspaper’s opinions.

Usually, they too only learn what positions Blade editorials will take when they read them in the newspaper.

A reader who gave her name only as “Nancy” is upset because The Blade’s style is to note that the University of Toledo Medical Center was formerly the Medical College of Ohio.

“It is irritating, annoying and unnecessary,” she complains. “If people don’t know yet that it was the former MCO, they never will.”

“When will The Blade stop referring to it that way?”

Well, trying to change that is not part of my job.

As ombudsman, my job is to deal with issues of journalistic ethics and fairness, and not with style. The Medical College of Ohio was a pioneering and important institution that ceased to be independent less than a decade ago. There’s nothing wrong, so far as I can see, with reminding readers of its existence.

I can, however, testify that “Nancy” is wrong in her belief that everyone already knows that Toledo formerly had an independent medical school: They don’t. I have college students who don’t know when the Civil War was. Nothing unethical about reminding anyone about our heritage, if only to prevent future mistakes.

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.

 

 

Contact him at: omblade@aol.com



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