Several years ago, The Kansas City Star newsroom referred to a set of guidance referred to as the “planks” — sort of a manifesto offering advice aimed at bringing the best journalism possible to readers.
I found many of its tenets useful, but the best one suggested that The Star should strive to present a “balanced” news experience. That can mean many things, but most significantly to me, it should refer to the mixture of topics and tone throughout the paper.
Those who follow politics closely (actually a surprisingly small subset of the general readership, in my experience) will first see it in terms of left versus right. They often point out understandable examples of where they think coverage of one party has been disproportionately lax or heavy-handed when compared to the other.
It goes way beyond politics, though. By its very definition, news mostly concerns itself with the unusual. I get many requests from people who want coverage of events that are intensely important to individuals: parental custody battles, disputes between businesses and customers, struggles with drug addiction.
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Sometimes these topics can be fodder, but usually they need to touch on the public’s well-being to rise to the level of news. A single homeowner in a fight with City Hall over a building code might point up a legitimate matter of policy that could affect many other people, for example. That makes it newsworthy.
Another crucial component of what makes coverage “balanced” is the mixture between positive and negative. I can’t count the number of times a reader has called me to protest a front page filled with death and destruction.
“Can’t you find a little bit more of what’s actually making a positive influence on the world and not just always give us all this bad stuff every day?” asked a caller last week. “Come on, tell your editors we know there’s good news out there too.”
She isn’t alone in that plea. Whenever I share a story about something positive in the community on The Star’s Facebook page, I know commenters are likely to have something good to say about it.
A recent profile of Missouri Mavericks owner Lamar Hunt Jr. is a perfect exemplar. One reader called to tell me he’s been taking The Star for 45 years, and he ranks the story among his favorite things he’d ever read.
“Take the time to read this,” one person commented on Facebook. “It is well worth it. Great article about a great guy!”
A caller proposed a few weeks ago that The Star should designate a regular spot for “the feel-good of the day.” She suggested — rightly, I think — that it would find a receptive audience. It’s a good idea for editors to consider.
“Why can’t you just ignore (Donald Trump) and make him go away?”
“Your coverage of Trump is pathetic. It’s all bad, terrible, nobody likes him. He’s leading in the polls, so he must be doing something right.”
“If you’re doing your job, you’re going to be telling the truth about every single lie he tells, which is pretty much every time he opens his mouth.”
How are those for some conflicting critiques? And there’s validity to each of them, to some extent.
There are two fundamental issues with news coverage of Trump: He’s the least-experienced politician in the race, and he has made the highest proportion of outright, objectively false campaign statements of any of the major candidates.
Both of those truths call for tough questions from journalists — but they must remain fair.