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Considering the Reporter/Opinion Writer Hybrid

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 25th, 2014 · On Second Thought
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It was the day after I retired from The Enquirer and Rick Pender, an editor at CityBeat, asked me to consider being this paper’s lead columnist. 

“I don’t have an opinion every week worth 750 words,” I told him. We left it at that.

Two years later, CityBeat news editor Greg Flannery asked me to write a monthly column on local news media. That I could do, but many local journalists are friends and/or former colleagues and competitors. A toothless column wouldn’t work. Naming and shaming would exact a price I wasn’t willing to pay. 

I found what I hope is an effective balance, but there is a deeper conflict. I spent 50-plus years among reporters who embraced the ideal of objectivity. That meant we struggled to avoid taking sides in our stories. When we succeeded, you didn’t know if we favored anyone or even believed them. All you knew is that we thought their words and deeds were newsworthy. 

Just as important, we left comment to others in their signed personal columns and unsigned editorials that spoke for management. Typically, opinion writers focused on issues and information about which reporters wrote. The goal was to keep news in the news columns and opinions on editorial pages where there was no pretense of objectivity.

Many of the best editorials took strong stands, used strong language, never said “time will tell” and avoided the word “should.” That separation of news and opinion — however porous — reinforced what readers expected. They could trust the reporting and ignore, accept or reject a paper’s editorial positions on the same issues. 

This column is a hybrid. I pass judgments and share the information on which they’re based. But I’m still at heart a reporter.

That’s my trade. Expressing strong opinions clearly in print, whether with humor or anger, still worries me. 

Which brings me to my discomfort with Enquirer reporters taking editorial stands. They’ve become 21st century hybrids, and even when I praise the results I’m uncomfortable with their evolving role. They identify as reporters but appear on the opinion pages. There’s no pretense. 

Today, it’s not uncommon for Enquirer opinion writers to pursue their own reporting and build a case for the position the paper endorses either in an unsigned editorial or a signed column. They often do that well, going beyond what’s in the news columns or bringing a fresh eye to the facts. Maybe this is a generational shift, where reporters become brands with their photos and artists’ statements atop their work, but it disturbs my expectation that opinion and reporting are separate roles. I expect it also disturbs some of their sources. Are they talking to a reporter who will not take sides or an opinion writer who will?  

To be fair, freeing opinion writers to do their own reporting has produced some of the strongest editorial campaigns. It helps that The Enquirer no longer feels obligated to produce staff-written unsigned daily editorials. 

Its opinion writers might specialize, but they don’t have to cover their beat on a daily basis. It’s something many daily reporters would love, but who’d fill the news columns?

Similarly, there is an even older hybrid: investigative reporting. At their best, investigative stories and series include relevant information, but it’s clear that reporters are going to tell you what they think is wrong. 

Otherwise, why would they bother? Most don’t. Investigative reporting demands resources that few papers today can mobilize or spare. That’s why editors want to know what wrong must be righted before they free their staff to start digging. 

On rare occasion, reporting reveals a flawed premise and the probe is abandoned. I was part of a two-man Gannett News Service team that came up with this result after weeks of travel and interviewing. We were called to Gannett headquarters where our editor told us the project was being aborted. Rather than having failed to document it, we had shown that the presumed scandal didn’t exist. 

That doesn’t resolve my discomfort with these hybrids and my wariness about the further risk that our remaining readers — older, better educated and likely to vote — will go along with the blurring of news and opinion. 

Finally, there is the problem of editorializing reporters becoming prisoners of “confirmation bias.” This goes beyond insufficient reporting and it’s not limited to the news industry. Rather, it’s the common tendency to choose information that support our beliefs or findings and to discard information which does not.  

That’s where some serious journalistic missteps occur. Probably the most infamous modern example was CBS accusations involving young George W. Bush’s service in the Air Force.  

So here I am, an uncomfortable hybrid among hybrids, editorializing on my own reporting. 


CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: letters@citybeat.com


 
 
 
 

 

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