“I know reporters will claim they don’t have any personal opinions,” began a caller several years ago. His words have stuck with me all this time, because they strike to the heart of the most important issues I deal with as the reader’s voice in The Kansas City Star’s newsroom.
I had to stop him before we talked further because he had a fundamental, and understandable, misconception of what journalists try to do.
All people have opinions, and that includes reporters, editors, photographers, page designers, copy editors, and everyone else who reports the news. The difference is that professional journalists are charged with making those reports fair. But what exactly does that ambiguous word mean?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary definition that comes closest is “treating people in a way that does not favor some over others,” and that’s a good start.
Readers perceive bias or unfairness in what’s written, and also in what’s omitted. It’s not unusual for people even to count the number of words devoted to people quoted on opposing sides of an issue. While it’s not the only metric to judge what’s equitable, this type of comparison can at least be instructive.
There are times when I understand those who think The Star blurs the lines between reporting and commentary. Nowhere is this true more than in what’s referred to as the “beat column,” such as those written by reporters Dave Helling, Steve Kraske, Mará Rose Williams and others.
These columns generally run on the first of the Local pages, and are labeled “commentary.” They aren’t exactly what The Star’s audience has come to expect with that label, though.
These beat columns are more akin to the “Reporter’s Notebook” feature The Star used to publish, where journalists offered analysis, or pulled the curtain back to explain aspects of the topics they cover in ways that sometimes wouldn’t be newsworthy on their own merits.
So when Williams wrote about concealed carry of firearms on college campuses on June 1, for example, the reader didn’t come away knowing her personal opinions on the contentious issue.
“Writing a column has prompted me to pay even closer attention to balance in my news stories,” Helling told me. “I try and read my stories even more carefully to make sure they're as bias-free as I can make them.”
Of course, that’s in the eye of the beholder, and readers tell me and the columnists when they find something they think smacks of personal opinion — as they should.
I think The Star is responsible for a lot of the confusion here, for one simple reason: These beat columns run in the exact same spot where Mary Sanchez’ own commentaries run on other days, with the same presentation.
Sanchez isn’t a reporter. Her only role is as a pundit, offering her own opinions and interpretation of local news.
No wonder readers are confused.
That may get better soon. The Star’s newsroom is currently working on a significant redesign of the print edition, last overhauled in 2007. The newsroom itself is also being reorganized, with changes big and small to how news gets gathered and reported.
This is a chance for fresh eyes on columns of all sorts. Readers deserve clear visual cues to tell them when they’re reading the news or something else.