Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training

A guide to fairness: A+B+C+D+E=F

By Jim Pumarlo

A wrong time is listed for a meeting. A person’s name is misspelled. A sentence contains a typo or wrong grammar.

Such errors appear more frequently than we’d like to admit at the R-E. They also go to the heart of our credibility. It’s reasonable for readers to ask: If they can’t get the little things right, how can we trust them to get the complex stories right?

For many readers, such errors are more than annoying. They go to the issue of fairness, says Robert Haiman of The Freedom Forum. The nonpartisan, international foundation is based in Arlington, Va., and is dedicated to “free press, free speech and free spirit for all people.”

Haiman addressed editors last week at the annual meeting of the Minnesota Associated Press Association. He has compiled a book of best practices for newspaper journalists.

The book is part of The Freedom Forum’s free press/fair press project. Its premise and strategy are common sense: “Our ultimate concern is for journalism that is both free and fair. With this handbook, we hope to encourage practices that the public will see as being fair, thereby helping assure that our newspapers remain free.”

Readers’ complaints

The Freedom Forum conducted roundtables in large and small cities across the country. The discussions documented nine ways in which the public sees newspapers as being unfair:

  • * They get the facts wrong: Although many journalists think that spelling and grammatical errors, wrong names, titles, addresses and other similar miscues have relatively little to do with the press’s credibility, the public sees it otherwise.

  • * They refuse to admit errors: There is a broad feeling that newspapers make too many mistakes and are unwilling to correct them fully and promptly.

  • * They won’t name names: Newspapers use too many anonymous sources.

  • * They have ignorant or incompetent reporters: Business, community and civic leaders say they and their organizations often are covered by reporters who simply don’t understand the issues they are reporting on.

  • * They prey on the weak: The public believes the press often takes unfair advantage of people who are suddenly and unexpectedly thrust into the news and are unprepared to deal with reporters’ questions.

  • * They concentrate on bad news: The longest-running complaint is that newspapers focus too much on what is wrong, violent and bizarre, and never print “good” news.

  • * They lack diversity: Newspapers have come a long way, but readers say they still need to more accurately reflect their communities.

  • * They allow editorial bias in news stories: The most powerful concern that surfaced was that news organizations had a negative bias.

  • * They can’t admit that sometimes there’s no story: Several officer-holders expressed frustration with reporters who seem absolutely convinced – when they first get a tip – that a story is destined to be a blockbuster, no matter what the resulting investigation might uncover.


Haiman’s remarks prompted me to do a quick self-evaluation of the R-E news product. The results – to no great surprise – were mixed.

We strive to print corrections immediately in the same space every day on the FYI page. We rarely use anonymous sources. We have at least two reporters – and sometimes more – review the complex stories to improve their readability. We strive to ensure that the editorial policy does not dictate news coverage. We’ve backed off of stories when there’s smoke but no fire.

On the other hand, we still have too many errors. We always can report more “good” news. Our coverage needs to better reflect the growing diversity in Red Wing and surrounding communities.

In the end, though, Haiman’s remarks remind us that achieving fairness is a daily challenge. It applies to everything we do at the newspaper – from stories and photos to headlines and design to what we cover and don’t cover. A person’s perception that something is unfair can quickly turn into reality, especially if the practice in question is repeated frequently.

So what is the best measure of fairness?

It’s as easy as the ABCs.

The formula, offered by Charles L. Overby, The Freedom Forum’s chairman and chief executive officer, means Accuracy plus Balance plus Completeness plus Detachment plus Ethics equals Fairness.

At the R-E, we take our role seriously to be fair and complete in our coverage. If you believe we’ve fallen short of that mark, please call.

Pumarlo.com • Jim Pumarlo • Community Newsroom Success Strategies • 1327 W. Sixth St. • Red Wing, MN • 55066 • (651) 380-4295