Self-education will lead to fairness

The Daily gets a lot of letters. Most letters comment on one aspect of an article or editorial or offer an alternative viewpoint. Those letters are important because they offer Daily staff members an opportunity to correct errors or misleading statements and to broaden readers’ perceptions of news events.
But it’s rare when a letter opens up a chance for Daily staff to examine basic editorial philosophies. Such a letter arrived a few weeks ago from Fedwa Wazwaz, a graduate student in computer science who is also a Palestinian-American and a Muslim woman. She wrote to Editor in Chief Nick Doty, News Editor Sarah Hallonquist, and me, to let us know that she believed a clip on our World and Nation page — which stated that grenades had exploded in Hebron — was biased in favor of the Israeli point of view.
Wazwaz’s letter claimed “there is an inaccurate and unfair assumption being made that the injuries were all caused by those grenades apparently (thrown) by a Palestinian militant and violence always erupts from ‘Palestinian militants.'” Doty wrote her a reply, which she also forwarded to me.
This exchange caught my eye because both Wazwaz and Doty took the time to address a common complaint against the media in a thoughtful and respectful way. Journalists cringe when the charge of bias is leveled against them. The Daily wants to be perceived as a fair and balanced source of news items so readers can make their own judgments based on the evidence we supply.
I called Wazwaz and told her that I was interested in talking with her about her letters and her perceptions of the Daily. She sent me a number of resources that she said would help me get a better understanding of the Middle East political situation.
Through the readings Wazwaz recommended, I learned that the situation in the Middle East is not only complex and often misunderstood, but that the history of Palestinians in the region has been tempestuous and misrepresented, if not outright ignored. If Palestinians aren’t mentioned, they don’t exist, and that’s what has happened historically, according to one writer on the topic, Edward Said. Wazwaz’s story just isn’t being told in any major media outlet — and when it is told, it is not told in correct political context.
The mission of the Daily is to cover the University of Minnesota first. Although reporters are also interested in local, regional, national and international news, the staff is primarily interested in happenings at the University. The Daily does provide some additional news by way of The Associated Press wire service. As Doty told Wazwaz in his reply to her letter, “We don’t have the capability to write stories, other than editorials and opinions pieces, about the Middle East or Africa or even other states. We run the stories that are available on the wire and try to run the most relevant stories for our audience.”
The Daily’s wire editor, Murali Balaji, chooses stories from the AP wire and edits them for length and grammar. He told me, “I do my best to represent both sides (of the Middle East conflict) equally because University students should know the full context of the stories.” He tries to be responsible but acknowledges that often any story on the Middle East draws fire.
Wazwaz makes an important point, however. She asks, “What is the goal you are hoping to achieve from printing these (AP) articles? Informing the public accurately and thoroughly on world events or filling room on the paper neatly?”
The Daily editors, photographers and reporters are responsible for what appears in the Daily’s pages, regardless of its source. Clearly they wouldn’t run a story that they knew or had reason to believe was a lie; for example, they wouldn’t run a clip from AP claiming that aliens had taken over the White House (“The X-Files” notwithstanding).
Perhaps we are too complacent in our reliance on AP’s lack of bias. The University is comprised of many ethnic and cultural groups. The Daily has a responsibility to them all. That’s a big order. Not only are reporters and editors required to be experts on their own beats, but they also have to be careful to represent a number of cultures fairly and without bias.
Both Doty and Wazwaz make important points. Wazwaz is correct to claim that the Daily has a responsibility to report accurately and fairly on events chosen for publication. Doty is also correct in noting that the Daily is a campus newspaper, lacking the staff and resources of its big-city siblings to fully cover stories that occur outside the University setting.
What can we do to resolve not only this particular conflict of responsibilities but others that will surely arise? The Daily wants to be responsive to the communities comprising the University, but to do that, reporters, columnists and editors have to continue to educate themselves on the history that’s happening right now outside University borders.
If Daily managers think that a World and Nation section is necessary and appropriate — and I believe they do — the staff members who put that section together need to try to stay on top of evolving world history. Not only should they understand the larger context of historical and current events, but they should be careful to represent current events in a context that fairly represents the issues. Daily staff members need to strive to the best of their ability to be fair and free of bias, no matter what the context of the story.
Another big order (and it would be unfair of me to ask that the reporters do this alone): The Daily as a whole should continue to learn about the world as well as local events. Editors should pass on important articles and stories to reporters and staff members who deal with international issues. There are University departments that can answer reporters’ questions on international history. We should all be on the lookout for materials that can help us get a handle on what’s going on in the Middle East, in Russia, in China, in South America, in Africa, in Australia.
I’ve told Wazwaz that I’ve shared copies of some of her resources with Balaji, the wire editor. I’ve also asked Daily editors not to be wholly reliant on AP’s version of any story. Because the Daily is a university newspaper, its focus should continue to be on the University of Minnesota. But reporters can take steps to educate themselves on world events that might impact a story they do on a University professor or student some day. They can contact a knowledgeable resource and ask a few questions to understand a historical or current event. That, at least, is not too much to ask.

Genelle Belmas’ column will appear every other week. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.