Readers’ rep reviews Daily, takes comments

Editor’s Note: Genelle Belmas is a doctoral candidate at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Her areas of emphasis are media law and media ethics.

It’s no secret that the mass media suffer from a lack of credibility. It’s also no surprise to media consumers who’ve spent the summer watching journalists fall.
We’ve seen Stephen Glass, The New Republic’s hottest young commodity, admit to complete fabrications of sources, events and entire stories. Editors there shook their heads and wondered how they let such questionable stories as a national convention of computer hackers get past their usually skeptical editorial pens.
We’ve watched two respected columnists for The Boston Globe, Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle, admit to ethical violations and leave the paper in disgrace.
We’ve watched (and watched, and watched) the ravening journalistic hordes cover intimate details of the president’s sexual escapades with Monica Lewinsky.
And we shudder.
No wonder journalists are struggling to regain lost ground.
Media organizations try many different methods to bolster their sagging credibility. Many newspapers have codes of ethics, either formal or informal, to instruct reporters on how not to violate basic tenets of journalism ethics. The Minnesota News Council touts itself as a “force for fairness” in its quest to help media organizations take the ethical high road.
This position is another method. I am the readers’ representative at the Daily. It’s my job to watch the watchdog — that is, I am asked to monitor the Daily for violations of fairness and accuracy.
Readers’ rep positions at newspapers and other media organizations are relatively scarce; in fact, this position is one of fewer than 40 in the United States. Twin Cities newspaper readers are fortunate that both the Star Tribune and the Pioneer Press have them. It’s rare that a newspaper is brave enough to submit itself to an independent internal critic. It’s rarer still for a university newspaper, and the Daily is currently the only one who has a readers’ rep.
The existence of this position isn’t meant to suggest that the Daily doesn’t self-monitor. Like all good newspapers, the Daily staff prides itself on self-critique. In fact, on my second day at the Daily, I saw that in the Fall Preview issue, a photo labeled as the staircase where a student fell to his death was in fact not the actual staircase. Because our staff photographer wasn’t allowed inside to get a photo of the actual staircase, he shot another staircase at the scene. The caption identified that staircase as the one the student had fallen down to his death. Oops.
This wasn’t a case of evil intent. It might have even been a case of mistaken identity or just sheer sloppiness. But Daily editors owned up to the error and printed a correction the following day. This is what good journalism does — we acknowledge our errors, correct them and move on. No one expects us to be perfect, but we ought to be darn sure we strive for it at every opportunity.
I am also here as your liaison to the Daily. I view this part of my job as essential to what a readers’ rep does. Too often readers see an error, a misrepresentation or an insensitivity and shrug it off as just more of the same.
Or worse, readers see problems and think, “There’s nothing I can do about it.”
That’s where I come in. It’s my job to help ensure that the Daily is a voice for you. It’s also my job to criticize the Daily for poor judgment as well as applaud it when it does a good job.
I let editors and reporters know when readers applaud or hiss. I can also answer questions about how the Daily works — who is responsible for what duty, for example, or how a story gets from an idea to publication.
I also view this position as an opportunity to teach. I’ll offer sessions to teach our reporters to be vigilant against libeling someone, or to give them tips on how to approach sensitive stories so the most information is provided at the least risk to sources. It’s important to me that our staff understands that legal and ethical issues should be at the forefront of good reporting, not something we only think about when confronted with a complaint.
This column is a forum for all of us. I use it to tell you what I think of the paper’s performance, and to let you know what’s on the minds of Daily readers. If you have an idea of a topic for consideration in this column, let me know. Like most of us here at the Daily, I thrive on reader suggestions. Your comments let us know that you’re reading what we write and watching what we say.
If you have a question or concern, call or e-mail me. I want this to be a forum where readers’ voices are heard and where their opinions matter. We have a letters to the editor column. Use it. I have a phone number and an e-mail address. Use them. Let us know that you’re reading and watching. That’s the highest form of praise for any newspaper, even if it comes in the form of criticism. We’ll take both your praise and your criticism. In fact, we’ll welcome them.

Genelle Belmas’ column appears every two weeks. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.