The wall between news and opinions

Op/Ed is a separate part of the paper; the Daily must strive to make this clearer.

If my opinions were governed solely by letters to the editor, I would be convinced The Minnesota Daily is a left-leaning rag that hates conservatives, Greeks and Christians.

As readers’ representative, I have read every letter since the beginning of September. While there are also regularly those who allege that the Daily gives too much space to conservatives, this is the general consensus of readers who take the time to write.

There is, however, a catch to these accusations: Most of them stem from the “reporting” people have read on the Editorials & Opinions pages.

“I would guess that people don’t understand that when they turn the page (to the Editorials & Opinions page), it’s a totally different part of the paper,” said Tim Burnett, Editorials & Opinions editor. “In general, a lot of things that go in the opinion page will create a perception of bias.”

Many, while not all, of those who have written to accuse the Daily of bias point to editorials or columns that are not a part of the reporting from the newsroom – which is obligated to be fair and balanced. Reporters and editors in the newsroom work harder than anyone on the outside can imagine to double check the accuracy and fairness of each story. In contentious stories, this can come down to tediously color-coding quotes and facts in a story to make sure no side is getting more space than the other.

But the Editorials & Opinions pages are completely separate from this process. After all, as Burnett pointed out, “There is no such thing as an objective opinion.”

The reporters and editors who write news stories and decide where they are placed in the paper, however, have no idea what the editorial board or columnists will write about, much less what stance they will take. Contrary to what some Daily readers have claimed, there is no grand conspiracy going on to discredit one side of any issue or the other.

However, the Daily could do more to make this distinction clearer to readers. In some instances, the Editorials & Opinions pages are the only parts of the paper addressing certain issues, thereby making it hard for readers to understand that is not the “news.”

A prime example, and one of the most popular Editorials & Opinions page topics, is the Maranatha Christian Fellowship. An out-of-court settlement this summer between the University and Maranatha allowed the group to deny membership to students it decides do not live by Maranatha’s Christian standards.

The first mention of this decision in the Daily, however, was in a staff editorial. Not surprisingly, many readers looked at this as representative of how the Daily on the whole felt about the issue – worthy only of an editorial condemning the decision.

With such a contentious, important decision, the Daily’s newsroom inarguably failed its readers by missing the story; a failure Editor in Chief Jake Weyer called an “inexcusable” mistake. Whatever the reason for the mistake, it caused some readers to decide that the Daily was biased against Maranatha. This decision, while perhaps misguided, is only natural.

Another prime example is the greek community, which reacted vehemently to several Daily publications during the fall. According to those who wrote in to complain, sorority and fraternity members feel the Daily ignores the good things about greeks, such as philanthropy, homecoming and Spring Jam events, and the overall contributions their community makes to campus.

However, they said, the Daily didn’t hesitate to publish an article about a fraternity on campus that was reprimanded by the Interfraternity Council for bad behavior. These stories, coupled with many negative references to greeks made by Dr. Date, Network and various columnists, make some certain that the Daily has it out for the greeks. Because the news side of the Daily does not cover the greek community nearly as often as Editorials & Opinions, Dr. Date and Network, the perception of bias is also understandable.

But Weyer insisted this is not a fair case for bias, because the newsroom does everything it can to cover newsworthy events.

“The problem is, lots of groups do philanthropy,” Weyer said. “We’re not going to write about something that’s not news just to cover a certain community.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Burnett insisted he will not rein in columnists who want to write about stereotypes that exist, no matter how false they might be.

“If it’s a commonly held belief, I think it should be published Ö so that someone else can point out how wrong they are,” Burnett said.

This was specifically Burnett’s thinking with the column “The reality of homecoming 2004,” in October. It indiscriminately attacked greeks and basically anyone who participates in homecoming, but Burnett insisted it would increase debate about stereotypes, and he was right: For more than three weeks, letters flooded my inbox from those defending greeks and homecoming.

But Weyer and Burnett need to do more to make sure the paper’s opinion content does not blur into news coverage, thereby creating a perception of bias. Weyer and the news side need to work diligently to make sure every newsworthy event – such as the Maranatha decision and anything else on campus that might later appear in an editorial or column – gets sufficient coverage.

As for Burnett, he needs to take extra care to make sure issues aired on the Editorials & Opinions pages do not outlive their newsworthiness. While there will no doubt be people who want to write about Maranatha, other student groups and Christians on campus in general all year long, Burnett is responsible for keeping the debate relevant and appropriate.

When certain topics only show up, or appear disproportionately, on the Editorials & Opinions pages, readers will naturally put down their newspapers with a certain idea about how the Daily covers those issues. And if the Daily loses its credibility with readers, the paper loses everything it stands for.

Libby George is the Daily’s Readers’ Representative and Ombudsman. She welcomes comments at [email protected]