Meet the public editor

May 09, 2004|By Paul Moore

IN THE 1967 movie Cool Hand Luke, a prison camp warden beats an inmate into submission and then observes, "What we have here is a failure to communicate." That line, rendered ironically, has become part of our popular culture and is a metaphor for the misunderstanding between readers and journalists about the role of a newspaper in our society.

At a time when The New York Times and USA Today have been rocked by internal scandals, The Sun has created the position of public editor - a new job for me at the newspaper where I have worked since 1996. Among the things I will do is communicate to our staff the questions and concerns of readers about accuracy, fairness and ethical standards. I will speak with readers about what The Sun is trying to do and how and why we are doing it, and I will report on when we fail and why we failed. I also will improve our system for investigating, writing and publishing corrections and clarifications.

This column will be an independent report that is intended to demystify the workings of The Sun and help make it more accessible to readers. It will be free of interference from the news, editorial page or publishing sides of the newspaper.

Specific issues that will receive continuous attention include:

The perception that editorial page opinions have infiltrated the news pages.

The conditions under which stories are reported, written and edited.

How and why stories are chosen for the front page and why they are placed in specific positions.

How headlines are written and how they affect readers.

The use and misuse of unidentified sources in news stories.

The use of photographs and the potential for manipulating images.

The perception that newspapers always emphasize the "negative" over the "positive."

What constitutes "fair and balanced" reporting.

I also will report and write about the newspaper industry and the issues that reporters and editors face every day.

The reputation of The Sun, or any newspaper, rests on its accuracy. Perfection must be the goal. Can we achieve it? Not likely. Should we strive for it? Absolutely.

Without accuracy there can be no fairness. The definition of fairness, however, can be a gray area. Decisions on where and how articles are presented, how an article is constructed and what the headline says are debatable. These issues are part of the editing process.

Articles or headlines can, despite journalists' efforts to be impartial, reflect an individual's political or ideological leanings. Often, a contentious item involves simple human error. An example: A headline in The Sun on April 14 said, "Bush says he has made no mistakes in war." In fact, the president made no such statement. The headline was inaccurate and unfair.

Another key issue is distinguishing among straight news reporting, analysis and opinion. The first two are provinces of the news sections, the third is the focus of the editorial and commentary pages. Criticism (of movies, music, art, books and architecture) and columns, which comment on current events, fit in between. Readers are often upset when they believe opinion has become part of news stories. This is a legitimate and long-running complaint. However, some readers will object to a balanced news report if it does not endorse their point of view.

What gives me the qualifications to be The Sun's public editor? I have worked in newspapers for 28 years, at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Sun. I have been a copy editor and reporter, but for most of my career I have been a news editor, working with reporters and other editors in structuring and presenting articles. For the past seven years, I have overseen The Sun's front page - deciding which articles and photographs will be presented and how they will be ranked and displayed.

This new position will be exciting and, I'm sure, humbling. I will seek to be clear and honest. I will try to avoid being ponderous or pretentious.

I expect disagreements with readers and with members of The Sun's staff, but that's part of the job. I will do everything to make readers' concerns known to the staff - especially to the specific reporters and editors involved in a particular story. Because I care deeply about The Sun, I also care deeply about our readers. Without committed readers, The Sun cannot be successful in the present or the future. Please let me know what you think.

Paul Moore's column will appear regularly on Sundays.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.