Monday, August 30, 2010


There's an all-volunteer newspaper located in a town about 25 miles southeast of Los Angeles. The newspaper has been around for 30 years, established as a not-for-profit enterprise designed to inform and "empower" local residents to become engaged in their community. Every week about 10,000 copies are distributed to area residents.

One of the newspaper's volunteer reporters e-mailed me about a predicament in which she has found herself.

My reader has some journalistic training in her distant past, but the editor/publisher of the paper, who inherited the job from her father, has no such training. Recently they found themselves at odds over a question of journalistic ethics.

My reader was assigned to cover a meeting at which a city agency invited "stakeholders" to discuss housing issues. At the meeting one man introduced himself as representing a local volunteer agency.

"He said some ugly things," my reader reports, "like objecting to being told by the state that our affluent city should provide housing for the poor."

He also referred to certain areas of the city as "dumps."

When my reader filed her report on the meeting, the editor/publisher cut from her story the man's affiliation with the local agency.

"They do good work," she said, "and shouldn't be dragged through the mud for one person's opinion."

"This does not feel good to me," my reader writes. "We criticize a lot of what the city and some businesspeople do. Shouldn't the do-gooders be equally accountable?"

Since this man's organization was invited to the meeting and he was sent to represent it, she believes that both his comments and his affiliation are fair game.

"Is the editor's action unacceptable?" she asks. "Are there limits I should set for my work?"

My reader's editor has every right to be concerned about fairness. If the speaker at the meeting was identified as the spokesperson for the group in question, however, that affiliation should be mentioned. Were his comments strictly "one person's opinion," he wouldn't have been invited to the meeting. Whether or not his remarks accurately reflect the organization's positions, he was there as its representative.

The editor's action is unacceptable, because she responded to a reasonable concern but didn't address that concern. If she was truly concerned about how this representative's comments might reflect on his organization, the right thing to do would have been to instruct my reader to do some follow-up reporting. She ought to have called the organization to see if it wanted to respond to his comments or to clarify the organization's position.

The fault is not entirely the editor's, however. If my reader wasn't asked to do this extra research, she should have suggested it. In fact, she should have made that effort in her initial reporting. The apparent conflict between the organization's ideals and the attitudes of its representative cried out for further exploration.

Simply printing the gentleman's comments without reporting his affiliation was poor reporting, since it didn't accurately reflect what happened at the meeting. Everyone there knew that he was indeed speaking on behalf of this particular organization, and the newspaper ought to have conveyed this relevant information to its readers.

As far as my reader setting limitations on her work, any writer working for a publication - whether volunteer or paid, whether covering politics or, say, writing an ethics column - is at the behest of the editor to whom he or she reports. Good editors will push their writers to do their best and most accurate work.

Unfortunately, not all writers are as thorough as their editors would like them to be, nor are they all blessed with good editors. The whole point of having two people in the process is to see that the best of each is reflected in the final product - which doesn't seem to have happened in this case.

c.2010 Jeffrey L. Seglin

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