Decision-making raises questions for Sun readers

June 12, 2005|By Paul Moore

SUN EDITORS make dozens of decisions each day as they produce the newspaper. Some, such as what to put on the front page and on the section fronts, receive more attention than others.

Most decisions are made with the best information available and under a daily deadline, which means editors have a limited amount of time to ponder the mix of stories and photographs before putting a page together.

Some readers, however, see hidden agendas in the editors' decision-making. They believe that editors seek to impart subliminal messages via their presentation of articles and pictures.

The difference between some readers' perceptions and the breakneck reality of the editorial decision-making can be disconcerting. Some recent examples at The Sun illustrate this significant gap.

The June 3 front page of the Metro section contained a dominant, two-photo package showing a hazardous materials response team conducting a burn test for a flame-resistant jumpsuit.

The first photograph showed technical assistants dressing a mannequin with a black head on an elevated platform. The second picture showed the mannequin engulfed in flames. A three-sentence caption accompanied the photos. There was no accompanying article.

Reader Jennifer Coates said the picture was deplorable. "It looks like a photo of a black man being lynched," she said. "How could The Sun not see what this image might mean to African-Americans?"

Said reader Brenda Williams: "That picture should not have been so prominent without better explanation. There is no story to provide context. What kind of subliminal message is The Sun trying to send to the black members of the community?"

Bob Hamilton, deputy director of photograph, said the newspaper did not intend to send any kind of message to any members of the community.

"This demonstration was considered newsworthy, and The Sun simply covered it," Hamilton said. "We had no idea anyone would see the photo in that way."

Anthony Ferina, a spokesman for the company that conducted the tests, said the head of the mannequin was black because of its repeated use in the burn tests. He was dismayed that this event - designed to develop technologies that could save lives - was seen by some in a negative light.

Why did Sun editors decide to use photographs of a preparedness test as the primary photos on the Metro cover?

"We are always looking for visually interesting pictures," said photo editor Weyman Swagger. "In this case, our original photo choices were uninspiring, so we substituted the burn-test pictures at the last minute."

This makes sense and is an example of how the decision-making process works. The comments by Ms. Williams about the lack of context make sense, too. The photo caption information was skimpy, and the news value was marginal for such prominent display.

Last Sunday's front page had a two-column lead story, "Bolton ran afoul of U.N. in '02 dispute." This Associated Press article detailed how John R. Bolton, the Bush administration's nominee to be U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, had played a significant role in getting the head of a U.N. organization fired because the official had disagreed with the U.S. approach to arms inspections in Iraq.

It is unusual for The Sun to lead an edition with a nonbreaking news article from the AP. Some readers saw a motive.

Reader Dave Baratolo called the story and its play an attempt to denigrate President Bush and his policies in Iraq: "Bolton's act is considered unacceptable to whom? Democrats, socialists and other nonpatriots perhaps." Another reader said putting the article on the front page "was a blatant attempt to sabotage the Bolton nomination."

Reader Marian Decker called the article important and its placement "absolutely correct," but she wondered why she did not read the story in The Washington Post or The New York Times. "It really surprised me that neither newspaper carried or followed up on this very important story," she said.

That the Times and the Post did not publish the story does not diminish its value. Those newspapers rarely publish any "enterprise" story that is not produced by their staffs.

Kathleen Best, the Sun assistant managing editor who made the front-page decision, first conducted a database search to determine that the story indeed had broken new ground. "None of the coverage going back three years provided the level of detail, including interviews with Bolton's former aides, that the AP story did," Best said.

She said the AP article was well-reported, with no anonymous sources, and dealt with Bolton's actions during a critical period for the United States - the lead-up to the war with Iraq. It reported on Bolton's actions that directly involved the United Nations and gave Bolton and his supporters the opportunity to explain their version of events.

Most important, it provided new information for Sun readers.

The Sun published this article on the front page without ideological motive. The editorial decision-making process worked well, and readers were the beneficiaries.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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