Your opinion about politics

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The election season was tough on the media: More and more people question the ability of the press to report news straight-up without bias.

At the Missourian, we heard charges that we were both too liberal and too conservative. A complaint that came in the day after the election was that the lead newspaper photograph, which showcased a local crowd responding enthusiastically to a TV declaration that Sen. Barack Obama had won the presidential election instead of featuring Obama himself, was the result of ownership bias.

Actually, nothing could be further from the truth. A photo of the president-elect was printed just beneath the centerpiece photo, and a large photo of Obama was printed inside on the jump page. The decision to run with the local photo as the lead, which was made by news management (in contrast to ownership), had to do with the guiding philosophy that the newspaper differentiates itself from other media by focusing on local news. Few other media are going to have a lead photo of people in Cape Girardeau celebrating Obama's win. Many others will have the same picture of Obama that we ran inside.

That said, if I had been involved in the decision, I would have made the call to put Obama on top and the local crowd below. Why? Any presidential election is historic, and this one even more so. There is something special about a newspaper charting the big events of our time on its front page, and the main event here was Obama, not the local crowd.

Making news calls is a daily challenge and can always be second-guessed. But that's why this business is interesting, too. If anyone has complaints or praise about how the newspaper covers events, you are always welcome to contact me or editor Bob Miller. We welcome feedback, including in Speak Out, which people may or may not realize touches upon the performance of the newspaper as much as any other single topic.

One perspective about the newspaper's "slant," though, is correct: The Opinion page leans politically conservative. In part, that is a reflection of the community, which participates in letters to the editor, Speak Out and guest columns. Even more, it is a reflection of the regular stable of syndicated columnists that appear on its pages. Many — though not all — of these columnists are conservative. There is no apology about this. It is a decision of the ownership, and it reflects the community as a whole. But even these columnists are balanced with other perspectives, whether submitted by readers, called into Speak Out or represented in the columns of syndicated writers who are not conservative. Creating a forum for open dialogue is what the newspaper will always strive for.

Of course there is room for the newspaper to improve.

One serious issue we will address before the next election cycle is how to handle endorsements of political candidates. For years, the Southeast Missourian has had a policy not to accept letters of endorsement, as it is difficult to handle such things equitably within space limitations. If one candidate pays someone to write letters for supporters to sign, are they the same as unsolicited endorsements made by interested citizens? If we accept only two or five or 10 letters about each candidate, how do we make the call on which ones to include? Or do we let the candidates make the call? If so, why aren't they running such endorsements in advertising, where they can have full control of the layout and content?

My belief is that next time around there will be greater opportunity for everyone to voice signed endorsements on the Southeast Missourian Opinion page. This might take the form of a 70-word endorsement in print — with no limitation on a companion (non-summarized) online version, if the writer so chooses.

Your feedback is welcomed. Let me know your ideas about how the Missourian can increase the opportunity for dialogue about political issues, especially while the election and recent campaign season are fresh.

Jon K. Rust is the publisher of the Southeast Missourian. Email: jrust@semissourian.com.

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