Policy Coincides with Launch of News-Heavy Website
By Tim Coco
WHAV President & General Manager (volunteer)
Objective journalism is becoming a lost art. An entire generation has grown up with sensational TV news teasers, misleading newspaper headlines, partisan cable news channels or websites that cater only to a particular political slant.
Local bloggers and public access television volunteers sometimes attempt to fill in the gaps, but they have virtually no training, exhibit little news sense, fear alienating politicians or become biased cheerleaders for organizations and causes they support. Worse, politicians or adverse public opinion may intimidate them into overlooking a legitimate news story.
What is ‘news?’
According to the News Manual, “The criteria by which news is judged are:
- Is it new?
- Is it unusual?
- Is it interesting or significant?
- Is it about people?
My former newsroom mentors, Former WHAV News Director Edwin V. Johnson, Haverhill Gazette Managing Editor Bernard J. “Barney” Gallagher and Daily News of Newburyport Suburban Editor James Simmons, would likely agree.
People often complain news reporting tends to focus on negative stories. In response, one of my former colleagues remarked, “It isn’t news to report on the houses that didn’t burn down last night.” There is room, however, for “positive” stories. If they meet the criteria above, these stories often appear as “features.”
News Reporting is not for the Faint of Heart
The news media has become known as the fourth estate, as described by English essayist William Hazlitt (1778-1830), keeping in check the other estates of clergy, nobility and commoners. Democracy is reliant on the fourth estate so as to ensure the dealings of government and entrenched interests are known to the people.
To maintain this delicate balance, professional news organizations have an obligation to report any news that impacts its audiences despite pleadings from sponsors, donors, government officials, etc.
In 2009, for example, Groveland public access television banned WHAV’s audio from its system because of, what Groveland government officials called, the reporting of “lots of unflattering things.” The disagreement occurred when then-Open Mike Show host Jack Bevelaqua voiced his concern about Groveland’s approval of septic systems near Johnson’s Pond, Haverhill’s backup drinking water source. Even though WHAV presented an alternative view from Groveland Selectman William Darke, WHAV remains banned on the town’s TV station.
Thanks to publicity surrounding the Groveland controversy, WHAV has more Groveland listeners via the Internet than before. To help protect WHAV’s independence, the station has necessarily applied for an FM license.
Sometimes, entrenched interests include sponsors.
Gallagher frequently remarked, “There is a wall between news and advertising for a reason.” By that he meant an advertiser—underwriter, in the case of WHAV—should have no ability to influence reporting, either by having positive news promoted or negative news ignored.
Sponsors and donors should realize the media must risk losing financial or other support in order to maintain public trust. In the long run, the loss of public trust means the loss of audiences that might otherwise have taken advantage of sponsors’ offerings.
Those who fear ramifications should stay out of the news business.
Reporting the News
Respected news organizations have tried to capture in few words their responsibilities to consumers of news.
The New York Times says its core purpose is to “enhance society by creating, collecting and distributing high-quality news, information and entertainment.” The Chicago Tribune leads its editorial policy with “Credibility is an indispensable asset,” while USA Today says its job is to “tell the truth as accurately and fairly as possible.”
In the broadcast arena, the BBC reports, “The public expects the information they receive from the BBC to be authoritative, and the Guidelines accordingly place great stress on standards of fairness, accuracy and impartiality. Without these, the key role of the BBC in supporting an informed democracy cannot be achieved.” The BBC goes on to list its values, which include trust, truth and accuracy, impartiality, editorial integrity and independence, (no) harm and offense, serving the public interest, fairness, privacy, children, transparency and accountability.
WHAV draws its policy from the best of these.
Telling tell the truth as accurately and fairly as possible requires “distance” between reporters and newsmakers. Since I am occasionally a newsmaker, for example, WHAV News Director Dana Esmel has complete authority and, in fact, obligation to objectively report or ignore my public activities. If Esmel decides to report on something in which I am involved, he discloses my association with WHAV. He also avoids any hint of approval or disapproval just as he would with any news item.
“Distance” is governed by professional news organizations with many different rules. The New York Times provides this guidance to its staff:
- Avoid conflicts of interest or any appearance of conflict.
- No newsroom or editorial page employee may exploit for personal gain any nonpublic information acquired at work, or use an association with our news organization to gain favor or advantage.
- No one may do anything that damages our news staffs’ reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government; in particular, no one may wear campaign buttons or display any other form of political partisanship while on the job.
Keeping Opinion Out of News
The news presenter must be careful not to inject his or her opinion into any story. In broadcast, this means the reporter or news anchor must avoid changing his or her voice inflection so as to not appear to be lending support or giving admonition. Johnson would suggest news broadcasters should speak in monotone voice. In any media, the use of adjectives or calls to action must be avoided.
There are exceptions. Columns on the clearly marked “opinion” page of newspapers and broadcast programs such as WHAV’s Open Mike Show are examples. The Open Mike Show always concludes “The opinions expressed on the Open Mike Show are not necessarily those of WHAV, its underwriters or affiliated stations.”
Untrained writers or announcers may think injecting opinion is allowed when they believe audiences will agree, but this should never be assumed. “Amazing” was uttered at least twice by one would-be television reporter to introduce separate news stories. There is no room for such clearly opinionated words unless the segment is marked as presenting the writer’s own view.
A newsmaker’s opinion may be presented, but only if it is attributed to that spokesperson.
WHAV’s “Community Spotlight” allows biased adjectives only when the presenter is named and represents the organization being highlighted.
Challenging the ‘Equal Time’ Misnomer
Many news organizations believe being “fair” simply means giving two sides of a story equal time or space even if one side’s position is demonstrably false. This is not WHAV’s policy. WHAV and other news organizations are obligated to report when one or both sides contradict established facts.
BBC’s policy is to “retain a respect for factual accuracy and fairly represent opposing viewpoints when included.”
Sorting out the truth has fallen to the savvy reader, listener or viewer. Snopes and Politifact have become popular go-to places on the Web to discern the truth, but this doesn’t help the average resident learn the truth about what’s happening closer to home.
WHAV’s news policy might be best summed up with the words of Voltaire biographer Evelyn Beatrice Hall: “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”