Jim Pumarlo, Community Newspaper Training

Reader complains to News Council

By Jim Pumarlo

“This newspaper tries conscientiously to report news fairly and accurately. When we fall short of this objective, we welcome complaints from our readers. Please direct your complaints to our editors whose names are listed here. If we cannot resolve our differences, we would welcome you to register a complaint with the Minnesota News Council, an organization which has our complete support.”

The credo of the Republican Eagle – our Fair Play policy – is reprinted frequently on this page. We take complaints seriously. Fairness is at the crux of a newspaper’s credibility.

A few weeks back, a reader pursued such a complaint regarding an R-E editorial. Although the reader wishes to remain anonymous, we believe others ought to know and understand the process.

The complaint never reached a hearing before the News council, and no further action is planned. The issue was thoroughly discussed at our weekly news department meeting, however. The complainant’s points were well taken. The press enjoys a powerful privilege in its editorial license. The complaint afforded an opportunity to review our editorial policy to identify how we can strengthen the process of researching and writing editorials.

Ground rules

A few steps and conditions are necessary before the News Council considers a case: 

  • * The complainant first must make an effort to settle the issue with newspaper management.

  • * Since the newspaper would be asked ultimately to invest time and effort in responding to the complaint, the party must sign a waiver of future legal or administrative action on the same complaint.

  • * If the complainant and newspaper are unable to resolve the issue, the council will consider a formal hearing. Both sides are invited to present their cases. The council votes either to deny or to uphold the complaint. A news release is sent to all media in the state. Just as in a court hearing, a minority opinion may be issued as well as the majority opinion.

  • * The council typically rules on fairness within news stories. The News Council has decided there is a lot of leeway within editorial comment, particularly when public officials or public figures are involved. The council only gets involved in editorial issues if facts are in dispute – opinions are neither right nor wrong.

At odds with editorial

The recent complaint involved an editorial which was characterized as unethical journalism. The chief issues raised were: The editorial expressed especially harsh criticism toward one individual; not all the facts were presented as seen in the complainant’s view, and therefore the editorial conclusions were tainted; this newspaper’s editor had direct involvement in the issue, which the complainant believed was a conflict of interest.

The R-E’s editorial board – Publisher Arlin Albrecht, General Manager Jim Edlund and myself – met with the complainant to hear the concerns firsthand. We stood by our editorial position, but at the same time we sought to keep the lines of communication open so the reader would feel comfortable in contacting R-E management regarding any future concerns. We also offered our editorial page to the complainant to express the concerns. That offer was rejected.

Although the issues will not be detailed publicly, a couple of points regarding R-E editorial policy are important to note.

Unsigned editorials

The R-E indeed tries to avoid criticism of individuals. For the most part, we focus on public issues in terms of the responsible public body. But there are exceptions. If we deem individuals to be especially in the forefront of the issues, it’s difficult not to single them out.

The issue of signing editorials, or stating when there is a personal involvement in an issue, is debated among readers and newspapers. It’s resulted in many newspapers resorting to signed editorials only.

R-E editorials express the view of this newspaper as an institution in this community. Although they are written primarily by one or two persons, they often represent a collective opinion. Staff writers and others within R-E management routinely are consulted as opinions are formed.

In hindsight, the personal involvement perhaps should have been identified in the editorial in question. The involvement had been noted in an early news story on the issue, although much time had lapsed.

On the other hand, the R-E encourages employees and takes pride in the fact that our people are actively involved in the community. We believe it makes for a better newspaper as we keep in tune to the community pulse.

For that reason, our people are involved in a variety of civic activities – whether simply as volunteers or on formal commissions or boards. We could be adding footnotes to nearly any local editorial.

Keeping us alert

Minnesota stands alone in having a News Council. We believe wholeheartedly in the process.

We consider our editorial page the fist resort for reader complaints. One of the primary roles of the letters column is to keep the R-E on its toes. Rarely have readers been afraid to tell us what they think; we hope they continue to keep us on target. 

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