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    Local Columns
    Monday, August 15, 2022

    We're journalists, not stenographers

    Some readers of this and other newspapers complain we're biased and call on us to report "just the facts."

    But we don't think you'd appreciate it if we were to simply transcribe and publish the information we receive from government and other sources.

    Our job is to dig deeper than a news release, to ask questions and consider as many angles of a story as we can. In the case of a breaking news story, we work to publish a clear, detailed and accurate story as soon as possible.

    If there's more to be reported, we should follow up until we, and our readers, are satisfied, then follow up a little more.

    An adage many of us learn at the beginning of our careers holds that we should report the news "without fear or favor." That saying originated with Adolph Ochs, who wrote upon assuming control of the New York Times in 1896 that the paper should "give the news impartially, without fear or favor, regardless of party, sect, or interests involved."

    We got to thinking about all this after reading a story by Roy Peter Clark, an author who teaches at Poynter Institute, a non-profit that provides fact-checking, media literacy and journalism ethics training. The story was published on Poynter's website and the headline read, "In journalism, 'objective' is a good word with a noble history. But let's consider 'distance from neutrality.'''

    Clark wrote that the concept of "objective" journalism has become problematic and confusing and may have lost all practical meaning. He proposed replacing it with neutral, disinterested, nonpartisan, impartial and independent.  He proposed a scale of zero to five to measure a newsroom's distance from neutrality.

    Objective journalism, which is zero on Clark's scale, is characterized by: "stenographic reporting, over-attribution, fairness defined as 'two sides,' false equivalence, context that is thin or nonexistent, no investigations, no editorial positions, no fact-checking of statements by experts, no interest in diversity."

    Is that what our audience wants? We don't think so.

    Next on Clark's scale is "neutral," and numbers two to five on his scale are "engaged, advocacy, partisan and propaganda."

    After reading Clark's definitions, I concluded most of the content produced by The Day newsroom remains neutral, though we're striving for "engaged" in some aspects of our work.

    (We're talking about news stories, not editorials or opinion writing by columnists David Collins and Mike DiMauro.)

    Clark writes that neutral journalism "was the norm through many decades of the 20th century and is practiced to some degree in every mainstream newsroom, but has recently come under pressure."

    He writes of engaged journalism, "This form of journalism finds paths to public service that do not always require neutrality as a value. What is sometimes thought of as antagonistic to neutral journalism is here reimagined as a positive, such as a belief in the value of diverse points of view on the same experience. It is the direction where many news organizations are leaning, but it lacks a name."

    The investigative project The Day is conducting around affordable housing — we'll update you soon on the Housing Solutions Lab — contains elements of "advocacy." 

    The characteristics of advocacy reporting are, according to Clark: "a narrower — but deeper — focus on stories of particular interest, transparency about its mission and purpose, promoting actions — including the raising of money — to support a cause; attention to alternative viewpoints, but often to debate them; coverage of groups and topics ignored or under-covered by mainstream organizations; complex definitions of diversity to match groups and causes being promoted; fact-checking, targeted to oppositional groups; accuracy a value, supported by corrections."

    Take a look at Clark's article, then tell us what you think. We're asking that question without fear or favor as we strive to be transparent about our work.

    Karen Florin is The Day's engagement editor. She can be reached at k.florin@theday.com or (860) 701-4217. 

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