So what is this thing called “fair ness” anyway? Perhaps it’s the opposite of “unfairness,” for which no one I know has yet come up with a perfect definition. But to paraphrase what a Supreme Court justice said about pornography, I’m getting to where I know it when I see it.
I’m more familiar with fairness because I spent much of 1998 and 1999 traveling around the country for the Freedom Forum to convene groups of readers—both community leaders and ordinary citizens—who were willing to talk about what their local newspapers did that often made readers think the press was not being fair. This was part of The Freedom Forum’s “Free Press/Fair Press” project.
Across the nation, with almost no variation from city to city, readers agreed that the following newspaper practices struck them as unfair:
- Newspapers are inaccurate and get basic facts wrong. (This was by far the top complaint about “unfairness.” People phrased it this way: “Why does the paper get so much, so wrong, so often?” “If I know that’s wrong, it makes me wonder what else they get wrong.”)
- Newspapers refuse to admit their errors and publish prompt, full and candid corrections.
- Newspapers use anonymous or disguised sources, particularly to make charges or level attacks.
- Newspapers have reporters who simply do not have the special knowledge or expertise to cover complex subjects or stories. (Most often mentioned was coverage of subjects such as science, medicine, health, business, finance and technology.)
- Newspapers prey on the weak and defenseless, particularly children, victims of tragedy, and unsophisticated citizens not accustomed to being questioned by reporters or surrounded by photographers.
- Newspapers concentrate too much on the negative problems and failures of society and too little on positive accomplishments and successes. And they tend to frame everything as conflict.
- Newspapers lack diversity of all kinds in the composition of staff and the content of the paper.
- Newspapers allow editorial opinion—or the opinions of reporters—to infiltrate news stories. Reporters write news stories laced with reportorial speculation on the possible motives of the people involved, and this makes it difficult for readers to grasp what actually happened as opposed to why the reporter suspected it happened.
- Newspapers are unwilling to admit that “sometimes there simply is no big story here,” despite what might have been thought when the story was assigned or the reporting begun.
Readers can come up with a list of what’s unfair. But are there policies and practices editors could adopt that might make their coverage more fair? The good news is that some already are doing so. Here are a few examples:
- The Chicago Tribune instituted an elaborate system to track every error in the paper, to find out who made it, how it happened, and how it could be avoided in the future. In five years, errors were reduced by 50 percent.
- The St. Petersburg (Florida) Times publishes every correction on the front page of the section in which it occurred, even if the error occurred far back in the section.
- The New York Times regularly publishes clarifications of stories in which all facts were correct, but the overall impression may have been misleading or important nuances were missed.
- The (Colorado Springs) Gazette is willing to publish corrections of errors that might have affected as few as five people.
- The Washington Post instituted the following rule: “No speculation on motives in first-day stories; the public deserves one clean shot at the facts of what happened before the motive-seekers and opiners descend on the story.”
- The San Jose Mercury-News will, on occasion, allow subjects of stories to withdraw or revise a quote. This policy does not apply to politicians or other savvy newsmakers, but to “naive, ordinary citizens who didn’t realize that what they said might get them fired, sued, divorced, etc.”
- When dealing with a potentially problematic photograph of a minor, The (Portland) Oregonian will call the parents and describe it or even have someone drive it to the family home to let parents see it and have a say in the publication decision.
- At several papers, one high-level editor is kept completely out of the loop while a big investigative project is being reported and edited. This editor is then brought in to put a completely “fresh eye” on the article when it’s presented for publication. The goal: to ensure that the reporting team has not gotten carried away with enthusiasm for the project and not fully supported its conclusions with evidence and facts.
- Newhouse Washington Bureau Chief Deborah Howell created a new beat called “Doing Good” to look “not for puff” but for genuine and newsworthy stories of accomplishment and success and instructional explanation of why something was working the way it is supposed to work.
- Many papers are tightening the use of anonymous sources, following the AP’s longtime policy, which says, “no anonymous sources unless a top editor has been persuaded that there is absolutely no other way to get the story…and it had better be a story of major importance to the community or the nation.”
The general credibility problems of the press are complex and have been a long time building. They are not likely to be fully resolved anytime soon. But if journalists would only listen, as I have for two years, to readers talk about the changes that would make them think the press is trying to be fair, much progress could be made, and rather easily.
Bob Haiman, former executive editor of the St. Petersburg Times and president emeritus of the Poynter Institute, has been a Freedom Forum Fellow since 1998. His research on reader perceptions of unfairness in newspapers appears in “Best Practices for Newspaper Journalists: A handbook for reporters, editors, photographers and other newspaper professionals on how to be fair to the public.” Free copies are available from the Freedom Forum at www.freedomforum.org (click on “Publications”).