A MATTER OF OPINION: Journalists, stay on the fence

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By Robin Bass

As editor of a community newspaper, I am always trying to walk the fence when it comes to writing news stories. I never want to be seen as being in someone’s camp, as they say, especially when it comes to covering local issues.

Even when I have expressed an opinion about some topic on this page – like forming a charter government or the school board sueing itself – I want our news coverage to show no hint of it. My mantra is simply, make sure the story is “fair and accurate.” Sometimes we may miss that nobel mark, but I can honestly say it’s never intentional.

Can other newspapers also make that claim? For years now my perception of the Courier-Journal has been that it is a liberal paper with an agenda to push their liberal causes. It seems each day I find headlines, stories or layouts that twist the news ever so slightly to make conservatives look bad and liberals appear much superior. But, perceptions are just feelings and not facts. Right?

Last week, I discovered a study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism that backs up what I’ve long believed to be true – that journalists are no longer walking the fence.

While the study covers every segment of journalism from radio, to networks, to cable news coverage – I was much more concerned with the integrity of the newspaper industry. That journalistic integrity was, after all, what we were taught in J-school. But the study found that Republican presidential candidate John McCain had 69 percent of stories with a negative tone compared to Democratic candidate Barack Obama. Check out journalism.org to see how the study was conducted.

As journalists, we know that our job is to tell the story with impartiality, clarity and thoroughness. What happened?

Many who go into journalism do so because they want to change the injustices in the world. They want to seek out the alleyways for the down-trodden and shove their photographs and heart-wrenching story into the American reader’s face over a nice bowl of Cherrios. “Wake up!” They want to scream. “Something must clearly be done to help this person!”

Maybe over the years, the journalism community finally realized they couldn’t change human nature as easily as they had hoped. Maybe they collectively decided to take the matter into their own hands. I’m not saying it was some calculated move. It probably happened gradually and thus slowly became acceptable. A story here. A headline there.

To be honest with you, I’m concerned about the state of my profession. It doesn’t matter what political, religious or social views journalists hold, the readers should never be able to make that distinction.

Journalists need to stop telling people how to live, who to vote for and and what to believe in their coverage of the news. Journalists also need to hold each other accountable to the code of ethics that state “the duty of the journalist is to (seek) truth and (provide) a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.” For more on journalistic ethics, check out www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.