I have always loved the news. Television news, articles in the newspaper, weekly magazines, and now of course news on the Internet all continue to have a great pull on me.
In spite of all the competition, the daily newspaper has always held a special fascination. I have traveled much of my life, and as my wife will quickly tell anyone, I am a collector of newspapers. One of the first things I pick up when I am in a new town is the local paper. We lived in Canada for almost seventeen years, and I came close to be traumatized by the Canadian tradition of no Sunday newspaper.
I can remember many wonderful Sunday mornings in college with both the Boston Globe and the New Your Times to read. That was one of my favorite ways to spend a Sunday.
Today of course with little effort I can sit at my kitchen table with a wireless laptop and peruse my favorite national papers. Of course I always read my local paper first. To me the printed page comes first.
Perhaps that is why I become so concerned when I see mistakes in the newspaper. I spent a lot of time in my teenage years with R.J. Berrier. R.J. worked for over fifty years in the local papers in Mount Airy, NC. He used to say that most people only got they name in the paper three or four times, at their birth, their high school graduation, when and if they married, and when they died. It was his absolute belief that they deserved to have their names spelled correctly each of those times.
Of course, I am not as good as R.J. was with names, punctuation, and spelling so I can live with the odd spelling error. However, what I cannot tolerate is opinion masquerading as real reporting. When I read something on the opinion pages, it is pretty clear that though a person may have tried to separate themselves from their opinions, they generally are espousing a particular view of a situation. There is no need to hide their tendencies on the opinion pages.
When I get off the opinion pages, I expect the reporters and writers to do everything possible to bring me a balanced view. Unfortunately in this past year, we have seen more slanted reporting from all sides. Newspapers have always had their own slant on politics, but most make a real effort to air competing views. Really good newspapers perform a great service in our country by challenging the establishment at times when the opposition parties may be ineffectual.
A free press is essential to our way of government. Yet this article is not about the current challenges that the press faces from the judiciary, but about the challenges the press is facing from within. If I write something for the web and make a mistake, I can easily correct it. With my limited readership, often I can correct the article before anyone has even read it. If someone writes an incorrect article and it is published in the newspaper, the correction which can at best be made the next day or the next edition often ends up being less effective than the almost continuous corrections and revisions we see on the Internet.
This means it is absolutely critical that sources be checked and double checked, that if the article is any place besides the opinion pages, a great effort should be made to make certain the article provides a balanced perspective.
Doing a good job means doing real research not just getting sound bites. This is a tough job in a world of instant news. It is however one of the ways that newspapers can remain relevant in our fast changing society where the world moves at the speed of the Internet.
Recently I read an article which positioned itself as a balanced view of the computer platform war. The article quoted multiple sources but ended up making a fatal error. Much of the information on one platform came from a salesman whose job apparently is to sell the competing platform. To someone like me whose life has been computer technology for the last twenty two years, it was also clear that the information was coming from someone who had no current experience on the platform where he chose to provide negative commentary.
Perhaps some will think it is a minor deal that an article with potentially incorrect information was published, but consider this. A large technology company happens to be visiting Roanoke on the day when a similar article is published. they conclude that the technological literacy of the Roanoke Valley is not what they are looking for in their workers. Perhaps a student reads the article and goes off to college interview with poor information. The interviewer concludes the student is poorly educated.
Making sure that articles are well researched, balanced and accurate is an awesome responsibility. To remain a beacon of fairness and balanced ideas, our newspapers need to recommit themselves to quality reporting even if it means we have to wait a little longer for the real story.