If we want our readers to trust us, we need to listen to their criticisms — and not disparage them, as The Daily Northwestern’s opinion editor has done
Before I applied to the Medill, I was studying physics and computer science. Despite being one of the few students who read the (physical) newspaper everyday, I couldn’t tell you how journalism worked or what went into producing that newspaper.
So when Matt Murray, executive editor of The Wall Street Journal, spoke at Northwestern a few months ago, I asked him for his thoughts on whether journalists should explain how they do their work. What is our responsibility to explain how we do journalism to our readers?
I’m asking the question again, but this time of the campus newspaper, The Daily Northwestern.
On April 17, 2018, the Daily published a “Letter from the Editor” written by Alex Schwartz, a Medill sophomore and the opinion editor of The Daily. The letter’s headline differs between print (“After ASG elections, recognize distinction between news, opinion”) and online (“After ASG elections, don’t call The Daily biased”).
The opinion editor was responding to criticism of The Daily by readers on Facebook, who accused the newspaper of bias because it published a Letter to the Editor heavily critical of Sky Patterson and Emily Ash, two candidates for president and executive vice-president of Northwestern’s undergraduate student government.
“The Daily itself cannot be conflated with the words of one columnist,” the opinion editor wrote. “To call an entire publication biased after reading the words of one person in the Opinion section ignores their separation from our reporting. …
“Our Opinion page provides an outlet for individuals to express their own ideas, and every other page is a space for reporters to relay unbiased information about issues and events affecting NU and Evanston communities.”
The Daily’s opinion editor is correct, but he’s missing the point.
First, the words “The Daily Northwestern” are included on both the Daily’s website and within its printed pages. To ask readers not to associate The Daily opinion section with The Daily itself is similar to asking consumers of Coca-Cola Zero not to associate it with Coca-Cola — if you were serious about making that distinction, you’d call it Dasani.
As he wrote, readers can misunderstand how the opinion section works, but it’s on The Daily to make it clear that the opinion pages work separately from The Daily’s reporting. It’s not on readers to find that out for themselves.
This is not the only controversial Letter to the Editor published by The Daily about this year’s student government elections. A few hours before voting closed, The Daily published a piece now headlined “Letter to the Editor: 30 LGBTQ+ students endorse Sky + Em.” The number “30” was added later.
While there’s definitely room to disagree, I believe “Letter to the Editor: LGBTQ+ students endorse Sky + Em” can be reasonably interpreted to imply that the letter is meant to represent the entire LGBTQ+ student community as opposed to the views of 30 LGBTQ+ individuals, and a change of this nature to a headline should be indicated to readers.
But, as of April 19, 2018, the online version of the LGBTQ+ Letter does not include any message that the headline was changed, and I was unable to find the letter in print from the archives of The Daily Northwestern’s issuu account.
And the opinion editor wrote in his letter that he takes issue with “folks insinuating (in some cases, flat-out stating) that this paper is biased without any knowledge of our editorial process or our structure.” But when I sent an email about the LGBTQ+ letter asking for factual information about the piece, the opinion editor responded with “I’m sorry, but we do not publicly disclose information about our editorial process.” That email chain itself is a separate story.
In addition, the headline of “After ASG elections, don’t call The Daily biased,” contrasts with his writing that “Yes, there is some bias involved in the act of choosing what stories we cover and publish. That’s called selection bias, and it’s something every single media outlet that isn’t staffed by robots experiences.”
While it’s understandable that he may have been responding to reader allegations of partisan bias, it’s still an unfortunate choice of words. Selection bias is a form of bias, and to communicate Yes, we’re biased, but not in the way that you think, and also you should be grateful we’re not robots in a letter responding to reader criticism is rather patronizing.
Moreover, that every other printed page of The Daily Northwestern may be dedicated to fact-based, un-opinionated and nonpartisan reporting is not enough, considering far more people get news online than through print, according to the Pew Research Center.
In the “Letter From the Editor,” the opinion editor wrote “all letters to the editor, columns and editorials are clearly labeled as part of the Opinion section, and — as all of them say at the bottom — they in no way represent the views of anyone other than the person who wrote them, especially not The Daily’s staff or this publication at large.”
The disclaimer does exist in small letters at the bottom of The Daily Northwestern in print, but it is not true for the dailynorthwestern.com website, where Letters to the Editor do not have such a disclaimer on their individual article pages.
As I have written before, the design and layout of websites does not make it immediately obvious whether something is opinion or reporting, and that problem exists even for publications as well-established as The Wall Street Journal.
That has begun to change. Earlier this month, The New York Times announced changes to the design of its Opinion pages in digital media with a distinctive font, a more prominent Opinion label, and a short author bio below the byline to explain why the author has authority to comment on a particular issue.
The Washington Post now has hover tooltips to explain its classifications of “Analysis,” “Perspective” and “Opinion” on its website, although that feature could be more obvious.
And when I brought up my Medium post to him, Matt Murray pointed out that the WSJ mobile apps already used different fonts for the headlines of news and opinion pieces, although I haven’t found that experience matched on the WSJ website.
But despite their shortcomings, all of these are much-needed steps in the right direction.
These actions— not acknowledging a changed headline, referencing the Daily’s printed pages without acknowledging its website, blaming readers for not knowing the editorial process — are examples of what I perceive as the elitism of journalists. This attitude says something like: “We’re journalists. Journalism is what we do. We know best. We know what we’re doing. You should listen to us.”
There’s nothing wrong with journalists knowing many things: journalism is literally the profession of information routing through society. (“You know things and tell me, now I’ll go and tell other people” is the my favorite basic summary of how journalism works.)
And journalism is a lot of work: since joining Medill, I’ve come to appreciate how much work it takes to do fact-checking correctly and well; fact-checking is an arduous process in which every name, every noun and every claim must be double-checked against notes and independent sources.
The Medill F is legendary within Northwestern; Medill lecturer Michael Deas once told me that the standard he uses for awarding the F is whether the error, if printed, would have required a correction in the newspaper the next day. (I have two, both from him, and I’ll never forget either.)
This is the standard that we are held to at Medill, and for good reason. Much of our work ends up in the domain of the public, stored within library shelves and archives or accessible on the Internet for who knows how long.
The European Union “right to be forgotten” is a just one example of how societies are struggling to balance the power of the media with individuals’ expectations of personal privacy. It’s not a coincidence that news articles make up many of the “right to be forgotten” requests to Google.
As journalists, our ability to impact the lives of other people means we need to hold ourselves more accountable for the accuracy of our work.
But simply because journalists work hard doesn’t mean other people don’t work hard as carpenters, couriers, chefs or counselors. And simply because we have satisfied ourselves that our work is accurate, ethical and complete doesn’t mean that our readers and audiences can’t know or understand that too.
One of the sayings I remember hearing during my earliest days at Medill is “If your mother says she loves you, get a second source.” I trust my sources but am skeptical of the information they provide me and work to verify that information through other means. Often, that means asking questions about procedure: “How do you know this? Who did you get it from? Can I have a copy?”
That our readers might want to ask the same questions about the information we provide to them should not be surprising.
Transparency in journalism is not a new thing, but it’s become relevant again. The independent nonprofit newsroom ProPublica sets an excellent example of how to conduct and demonstrate journalism transparency and accountability. And in December 2017, the Washington Post shared how journalists reported the story of allegations against Roy Moore days after Marty Baron, the Post’s executive editor, said at the Poynter Ethics Summit: “I think there’s mystery about how we go about our work. Let’s just be more transparent about how we pursued the story.”
Whether we like it or not, journalism is in the business of trust, and we have plenty to learn from people who have been here for decades. Financial institutions like Bank of America, industry regulators like the Food and Drug Administration and technology companies like Uber and Airbnb are all playing the same game.
Transparency, openness, and willingness to listen to public criticism — even when the public has less information than you do — are better responses than trying to use industry jargon like “involuntarily denied boarding” and “re-accomodation.”
The need for transparency applies to all parts of a news publication’s operation, including its opinion section. In an age when anybody can post on Facebook or write on a blog (hello!), being published in a news organization like The New York Times, The Washington Post or The Daily Northwestern is a key signifier of quality, elevating selected opinions from the cacophony of the masses. When an opinion piece is published by these news organizations, the implication is clear and unremovable: Somebody other than the writer thought this was a good argument. I’d better read it.
Reactions like this “Letter From the Editor” to criticisms of news publications do little to solve issues like a lack of trust in news media and the rise of politicians worldwide portraying the press as the enemy. Instead, they turn readers away from understanding and appreciating our work.
I recognise that editing a newspaper is hard enough, and being opinion editor would only make it even harder. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t implement better solutions, such as including a subheading on Opinion webpages: “Opinion stories are edited by our opinion editor, managing editors and the editor-in-chief. Views expressed by named individuals and groups, other than our editorial board, do not represent the views of this publication, or any of its editors or its staff.”
Changes to how journalism is presented, as The New York Times, the Washington Post, and The Wall Street Journal have implemented, help our readers to understand how we do our work without impending on core journalism values: accuracy, clarity, brevity.
My three years so far at Medill have taught me that there is no secret to doing journalism. You find people, ask questions, write stuff down, find some more people, ask some more questions, write some more stuff, and then repeat until you’ve written a story. There’s nothing to hide and no mystery to maintain.
But our readers and our audience also owe us nothing, and we need to earn their trust and respect. We need to listen to the criticisms and feedback from our readers, and give them the information they need to decide if they will trust us. Amidst a crisis of trust in the media, all media organizations— including student publications — need to do better.