PUBLISHER'S NOTEBOOK: Sunshine Week good time to shine light in news process
Tuesday, March 13, 2012 6:33 AM
This week is Sunshine Week, a week designated to raise awareness of the importance of open government and freedom of information. The national initiative was launched in 2005 by the American Society of Newspaper Editors in mid-March to coincide with the birthday of James Madison.
We have published some materials recognizing the purpose of this special week in past years. However, this year, given some recent interactions with our readers, it is a good time to explain some of our practices, rather than argue for openness in government.
We do believe in transparency and oppose censorship of any kind, but we also have a responsibility to be concise and fair, which means we may limit some information from being published.
In this age when people can self-publish whatever comes out of their mind, with no editing, to social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter, there is resentment when newspapers alter the wording or omit certain parts of a submission for publication, or even refuse an entire story. We can understand that frustration, but we have to look at the bigger picture than one individual.
There are many reasons why a submitted piece might get edited. This column will review a few of the more common ones.
Style: Newspapers have a standard style that they try to maintain. For example, someone submitting a news release with portions in all upper case or multiple exclamation points will usually find the published piece minus those typographical extras.
Although not all news stories conform to the "who, what, where, when, why" format in the first paragraph, if a story has an important piece in the last paragraph, that will be moved up in the story. Readers shouldn't have to read through several paragraphs to find when an event is being held.
Also, stories that boast this is the greatest event in history or some other such claim will usually have that part deleted or at least attributed to a source so people know that it is one person's opinion.
Some may question why we can't just leave things as they are, but the published product is more a reflection of this newspaper than the individual author and we want to maintain a style that is professional, yet personal, in a consistent manner.
News: If it is a news story being submitted, our staff has to make a decision whether it really qualifies as news. That is somewhat subjective and we are usually pretty lenient, since there are few other outlets to publicize events. However, when someone asks us to publish a news release twice, our standard comeback is that it is news once, but advertising the second time since, after all, it isn't news any more.
When a submitted news release lists every sponsor or thanks commercial entities for donations, we feel that is advertising, not news. Groups should find other ways to recognize their contributors, either through personal notes or paid ads if they want to spread the word of these good deeds.
As far as publicizing events, we are more lenient than other newspapers, but still can't promise that an event will be publicized in the exact way and at the specific time requested by an organization.
We are using resources of our staff to promote the event and have other considerations, such as space, cost and time to take into account. Organizations that want to get their message across at the exact time and style they desire should look to our advertising department for guidance.
Fairness: This issue most often comes up on the opinion page. When a famous radio commentator can call a woman a slut and prostitute, readers who submit letters to the editor wonder why we are so careful with what gets published.
Part of it is fear of libel. We generally have letters reviewed by a Minnesota Newspaper Association attorney to make sure we don't get into legal trouble.
However, it's not just about fear of litigation that drives us. We want to be fair to people involved, since, after all, they probably live in the community and should have reasonable expectations that their reputations won't be tarnished by hearsay.
Yes, people who commit crimes will make it to our news pages, but if someone calls a person a liar or a crook in a letter to the editor, we need more proof than someone saying it is so.
At times, people want to put words in the mouth of someone, saying in a letter that this person told this person something. Before publishing the words of someone through second-hand knowledge, we want to make sure the person being quoted actually said what is being claimed, particularly if it is damaging to that individual's reputation.
In other cases, we don't have the time to track down a he said-she said situation, and feel it is a private matter between two individuals. This is the case when someone complains about poor service or conditions at a business.
People assume we are protecting the business or shying away from controversy, but the reality is we just don't have a clear picture of the truth when someone claims rude service or shoddy quality in a personal transaction. Besides, often there is more to the story.
Now, if something similar comes up at a government meeting we are covering, that does change things. Not only do we have more protection for libel in a public, government meeting, the issue has made it into the public eye and we are more likely to report on it since the government body will likely address the issue.
Also, standards are a bit different for someone that seeks the public eye, such as a politician, compared to a private citizen.
More: These are just some of the issues we deal with on a regular basis. There are many more that come up from time to time that we just have to judge on their merits and go from there. We may not always be right as sometimes readers have valid arguments that give us reason to pause.
It would be much easier if we were like Facebook - and just allow anything to be posted. Then again, people often wonder if what is posted on Facebook is right or even true, and, for people with a lot of friends, there is a huge amount of material to wade through, much of it having little relevance or value.
Being a general interest newspaper, we can't always guarantee everything in our publication has relevance to your life, but we work hard to wade through all the information to provide you a package each week that has important news brought to you in a consistent, professional style that is fair to all individuals in our community.
Still, we value reader participation in providing us news for our publication and want to work with the people in the community, but hope you realize that it is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface.