Public Editor

Donald Trump’s campaign points out why fair journalism matters

Most readers contacting public editor Derek Donovan have called for careful scrutiny of Donald Trump’s campaign.
Most readers contacting public editor Derek Donovan have called for careful scrutiny of Donald Trump’s campaign. The Charlotte Observer

I had the pleasure of talking to two college journalism students last week about my work for The Kansas City Star. One of their questions was particularly easy to answer.

What is the favorite part of my job, they wondered. It’s talking to readers — and especially those who like the print edition.

Of course I hear from critics with strong political opinions both right and left. The Star’s news coverage is too hard on Sam Brownback and his state’s budget woes, conservative Kansans often tell me. There isn’t enough news about Bernie Sanders’ successes on the campaign trail, those on the left say.

But much more often than not, newspaper readers want to see all sides of an issue and make up their own minds. That is a far cry from the partisan news outlets such as on the left or Fox News on the right, which often serve up a vision of their opposition that is exaggeratedly caricatured.

Print fans like the curated presentation of the paper. They want editors to give the most important news the most prominent play. And they like to read “information that I would never have seen if someone hadn’t realized everyday people probably didn’t know about it,” as one recent caller put it.

Of course The Star doesn’t always get it right in how it reports the news, But that’s why I’m here. I can think of few other industries where it’s actually seen as a good thing to publicly air and acknowledge even subjective criticisms. Journalists who are open to their faultfinders are better reporters, editors, designers and photographers.

An email I received on March 31 is a case in point:

“I am SHOCKED that you would bury the disgusting anti-women’s rights comments by Trump (which he sorta retracted later ) on 14A!” wrote Katherine Delk-Calkins.

“Please let your paper at least be trusted to expose any candidate’s shocking (and stupid) statements.”

She was referring to a story that day about Donald Trump’s statement during a conversation with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews that a woman who had an abortion should face “some form of punishment” if the procedure were outlawed.

I have to admit that in this case, I didn’t really agree with my emailer. I watched video and read the transcript of the exchange, which I think could charitably be categorized as word salad, on both the candidate and the host’s part.

Ultimately, I agree with the story play in that Trump seemed to be answering with the presupposition that the procedure had been outlawed. In that hypothetical case, I don’t see his saying that punishment is appropriate for breaking that law as particularly outré, especially for a Republican politician.

When I first saw the story breaking on cable news the day before, I too initially thought it was far more shocking. The on-screen crawls on more than one network said Trump was “calling for punishment for women who get abortions.”

In the fuller context, though, it’s a minor blip, possibly most important as an illustration of Trump’s ability (or inability) to address a poorly worded and absurd question.

It’s also reasonable to disagree with my assessment (and I’m sure some of you will). Maybe it should have been played on Page 1A.

Trump’s continued prominence calls for careful but fair scrutiny of his statements, which are always off the cuff, and sometimes nonsensical.