Minnesota News Council votes in favor of editorial limits

Latasha Webb

A hearing at the University tested the limits of editorial writing and subjected editorial writers to new standards Thursday.

Members of the Minnesota News Council determined John Edstrom of the Winona Post went too far when criticizing the Winona Board of Commissioners’ Jan. 9 meeting.

The judges had to decide if Edstrom implied the board held an illegal non-public meeting in his Jan. 14 editorial. Judges had to determine if the Winona Post’s response to the board’s complaint was adequate as well.

In his editorial, Edstrom wrote the board decided to purchase a middle school – a decision mistakenly reported in another newspaper, The Winona Daily News.

The chairman of the county board, Dave Stoltman, denied making the decision to purchase the school.

Edstrom comments in his editorial, “And well he should (have denied making the decision), since it would probably have been illegal to do so at a meeting that almost certainly took place in violation of Minnesota’s open meeting laws.”

Stoltman said the public knew of the meeting and was welcome to attend, which makes it an “open” meeting.

“It was a regularly scheduled meeting. (These accusations are) very devastating politically,” he said. “The main problem is the perception of the readers in Winona,” he added.

“We could lose our elected position over this,” said Commissioner Kathryn Buswell, who serves on the board.

The board was present via videoconference for comment and question. Edstrom did not attend.

Eleven media representatives and nine public citizens attended the hearing as judges.

Judges disagreed about Edstrom’s responsibility because of the misprint in The Winona Daily News.

“Editorial writers do have to have a factual basis,” said Pia Lopez, an editor for the Duluth News-Tribune. “In this particular case, I see no factual errors,” she said, citing the error in The Winona Daily News.

“There was just confusion about what really happened,” said Kathleen Stauffer, managing editor for Catholic Digest. “This was an equal opportunity mess.”

Others had less sympathy for Edstrom and his strong words.

“It’s my belief that the editor did not follow his ethical responsibilities,” said Neil Neddermeyer, a private investigator and retired detective.

“It fails the test of journalism. It leaves a false impression,” said WCCO anchorman Don Shelby. “If it leaves a false impression, you’re obligated to fix that,” he said.

Jon Austin, a public representative, said the editorial was poorly written. “Does that inartful writing constitute unfairness?” he asked.

The judges voted Edstrom was responsible for misleading readers.

The final outcome was a 10 to 9 vote stating the editorial falsely implied the board held an illegal meeting and a 12 to 7 vote that the Winona Post’s response to the board’s complaint was inadequate.

What this means for editors is that editorials may share an opinion, but it must be based in fact.

 

Latasha Webb welcomes comments at [email protected]