Blogs » Your Advocate: an editor's blog » When, if ever, should reporters express opinions?

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We encourage all staffers to blog and use social media in a variety of ways. We see this as an excellent way to engage our audience in a conversation and create additional content for our website. We recognize this can create a conflict with a core journalism value of avoiding the perception of bias in news coverage. Meanwhile, new media advocates note humans are all biased and assert journalists actually can build more credibility with their audience by being transparent about these influences.

During our ethics board meeting this week, we discussed our current practice of having reporters write mainly two types of fairly neutral blogs:

-- About what they're working on, encouraging people to suggest story angles and sources.

-- About what they're reading, offering links to interesting stories related to their beats and soliciting reader opinions.

Our education reporter asked whether she could go beyond these guidelines and encourage more people to take advantage of Victoria's cultural opportunities such as the American Book Review reading series. She wanted to express this opinion in a blog, which also would be published in our "Get Out" entertainment section.

Two of our reporters attended the discussion and said they would not feel comfortable ever expressing any opinions in any way related to news coverage. The consensus of our board, though, was that reporters who are comfortable expressing opinion should be allowed to do so regarding non-controversial items. The opinion piece outlined by our education reporter would fall in this category. Other exceptions like this one should be cleared first by a senior editor before posting. The murky part, we acknowledge, is that almost any subject could become controversial to someone.

We would maintain our restriction against reporters offering opinions about controversial topics on the beats they cover. We agreed doing so would open them up to criticism about their reporting. At the same time, we want to encourage reporters to dig deeper into the topics they cover and aim for substantive analysis articles. While not offering opinion, such analysis pieces give readers the benefit of the reporters' expertise.

We also discussed blogs by newsroom staffers who are not reporters and by those who work in departments outside of the newsroom at the Advocate. We agreed readers might assume any opinions expressed reflect those held by the newspaper, even though this is not at all so. We compared this with letters to the editor, which all reflect the views of the writer alone and not the newspaper, yet many readers still get this basic point confused.

Even so, we want to encourage people to engage in a constructive community conversation and know we must always work to educate our audience about what we do and why. To further that, we decided we should develop a disclaimer to use at the end of blogs by Advocate employees. Here is an example of possible language: The views expressed in this blog do not necessarily reflect those of the Victoria Advocate. We're open to other suggestions of wording or placement for this disclaimer.

Finally, we discussed for a bit about how a community newspaper doesn't have the luxury -- or the liability -- of larger newspapers, which might have the position of full-time columnist, for example, or an editorial board that is entirely separate from the newsroom. At a newspaper our size, most people have to wear multiple hats. This doesn't mean we sacrifice core journalism values. Rather, it means we are inherently closer to our audience and thus forced to be even more transparent about how we cover our community.


The letter below has nothing to do with the subject at hand, but I received it in the mail today, so I thought I'd share it with this post to add a laugh to your day.