Daily is striving for accountability

Among the many complaints people make about the news media is that they lack accountability. While exerting extraordinary influence over our society, the news media enjoy a level of autonomy unique among our major institutions.
Readers often ask why journalists, like doctors and lawyers, should not be made to earn licenses, which can be revoked for bad behavior. There are dozens of practical, political and constitutional reasons why that is a bad idea, but at the root of this question is a legitimate concern about the media’s unwillingness to answer for its actions.
To its credit, the editors of the Daily have taken a number of steps to help assure readers that they recognize the connection between credibility and accountability.
The one new thing the Daily is doing this year is requiring all staff reporters to include their e-mail addresses at the bottom of their stories. This allows for direct and immediate feedback from readers and sources. Reporters are also encouraged to include their Daily phone number, but this is their option. Also, the e-mail addresses of all of the Daily’s editors are included in the staff box on page two.
The goal of this is to open a direct channel of communication between the readers and the staff for complaints, clarifications, compliments and even tips and story ideas. Readers should take full advantage of this new openness by the staff, and the staff should relish the opportunity to get such immediate and direct insights from readers.
The other thing the Daily does to ensure accountability is to hire a readers’ representative. It is my job to monitor the content of the Daily, point out mistakes and comment on the editors’ decisions. I also serve as a liaison between the readers and the staff by investigating reader complaints and communicating them to the staff, and by explaining to readers how newspapers work and why the staff made the decisions they did.
Finally, as always, the Daily acknowledges its mistakes through a corrections section on page two, and it welcomes compliments and criticisms in its letters to the editor section and on its opinion page, both of which appear in every issue.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges journalists to be accountable by: (1) explaining news coverage and inviting dialogue, (2) encouraging the public to voice grievances, (3) admitting and correcting mistakes, and (4) exposing unethical practices. The structure is certainly in place at the Daily to achieve all of these goals. It is up to the staff and readers to make it work.
Rape victims need to be heard
You might have noticed on the opposite page a letter to the editor that was published anonymously. As the editor’s note points out, the Daily’s policy is to reject letters to the editor and all other outside submissions in which the author is not fully identified, usually by both name and either university affiliation or city of residence.
Given the unique nature of this letter, however, and in light of the Daily’s report Tuesday on sexual assault, “Sexual assaults often go unreported,” we decided this letter was among the type that warranted an exception to the general rule.
I say we because, while my normal role as the readers’ representative is to stand as an outside observer, I was a direct participant in this decision. One of my duties as the readers’ representative is to select and edit letters to the editor. It is the only part of the paper over which I have any control over content.
There are many obvious reasons for the Daily’s policy on anonymous submissions. One is that people are more likely to make bogus accusations from behind the shield of anonymity. Anonymous authors are also not made accountable for what they say, and the subjects of their criticisms are denied the chance to face their accuser, so to speak.
Also, by allowing one person to express his or her ideas anonymously, you invite all future letter writers to seek the same protection.
The decision to make an exception in this case was made after balancing the readers’ need to know against the risk that the writer was not telling the truth.
As for the readers’ need to know, it should be apparent. Although, if it is not apparent, that makes the letter all the more necessary. Our society has still not acknowledged the extent to which sexual assault affects women’s lives. Most people have no idea how many women have been victims and how many more have had their lives disrupted by the fear of sexual assault and other threats to their safety.
We need to hear their stories. Unfortunately, our society is not always sympathetic. We still mistreat crime victims. We still harbor old taboos. And, sadly, we still look and act differently toward those who have been raped. These things can’t change without our being forced to confront the problem. And we can’t be forced to confront the problem if the victims of sexual assault are still afraid to make their voices heard.
As for the possibility that this woman’s story was untrue, we did not believe this was likely. First, people generally don’t lie about being sexually assaulted. Second, the woman did not accuse anyone by name, so this was clearly not some manufactured attempt to attack or humiliate someone anonymously. Finally, and most importantly, we required that as a condition of publication, the woman identify herself to the Daily. She agreed.
For these reasons, and with these safeguards, we agreed to print the letter.

Erik Ugland is the Daily’s readers’ representative. His column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about his column and the Daily at [email protected]