Convenor: Larry Laughlin, AP
- Betty Adams, Kennebec Journal, Augusta, Maine
- Chazy Dowaliby, The Patriot Ledger, Quincy, Mass.
- Elaine Hooker, AP
- Paul Janensch, Quinippiac University, Hamden, Conn.
- Nick Pappas, The Telegraph, Nashua, N.H.
- Harry Whitin, Telegram & Gazette, Worcester, Mass.
What’s fair? It takes little prompting to get group of journalists to swap anecdotes and ask questions once the question is on the table.
When can you use anonymous sources? Do fringe political candidates in a crowded field merit attention? Are we justified in running abuse allegations against Roman Catholic priests? Should we allow people talking to a reporter for the first time more slack than we do the public figure who’s accustomed to dueling with reporters?
There’s no one answer, but the issues raised during the one-hour conversation demonstrate how often reporters and editors grapple with the issue of fairness.
Chazy Dowaliby, editor of the Patriot Ledger, asked about printing allegations that have not developed into formal charges. “At what point do you make the judgment that you have the facts to warrant printing them?” That might depend on the intangible of credibility or on competitive factors. For instance, does the local TV station have the allegations and will it air them?
Betty Adams faced the fairness question in the case of a man charged with unlawful sexual contact with a 14-year-old girl. Two alternate jurors were eliminated before the trial got under way and another was discharged for unknown reasons after the alleged victim testified, which reduced the panel to 11 and forced a mistrial.
Adams said the Kennebec Journal decided it would be unfair to run a story on what happened in court, because it would include only testimony the defendant would not have a chance to rebut. The trial is expected to run only one day, and the paper will staff the proceedings when the case gets back to court, so there was no need to leave the accused hanging.
Standards on what’s printable seem to have changed in recent years. The group agreed the tone turned tawdry with the supermarket tabs’ disclosures about Clinton’s involvement with Gennifer flowers. The tabs began breaking ground on a series of major stories and more staid publications felt themselves dragged along.
Anonymous sources: Paul Janensch, now teaching at Quinippiac University in Hamden, Conn., forbade their use while he was a working journalist, most recently as editor of the Telegram & Gazette in Worcester, Mass.
Dowaliby said The Patriot Ledger has used an anonymous source once in the four years she’s been its executive editor but believes “we should take the chance with anonymous sources more often.”
It’s worth the risk, when the information is solid, to use unidentified sources in order to expose something that needs to be corrected, she said. Papers, particularly smaller ones, may be too timid on that count.
Is it unfair to draw a figurative line between candidates with the money to mount a robust campaign and the have-nots? Laughlin said the AP struggles with that issue, particularly when the crowd of candidates descends on New Hampshire for that state’s quadrennial Presidential Primaries. The bureau is forced by limits on time and resources to make realistic decisions on whom to cover or ignore. But candidates with serious and well articulated issues will get coverage, even if they lack the support of the major parties.
Janensch said the public expects us to make those choices, although there’s a risk. “People want us to act as filters, but, paradoxically, they don’t trust us to do that,” he said.
Harry Whitin said the ongoing church abuse scandal has subjected the Telegram & Gazette to some public ire.
The newspaper was savaged for being anti-Catholic when it ran details from a deposition about abuse allegations against the diocese’s auxiliary bishop. The diocese suspends priests who are targets of credible allegations, but it left the auxiliary bishop in office on the theory that, as a diocesan administrator, he serves at the pleasure of Rome.
Amid the clamor is the suspicion that allegations are being printed against some innocent priests.
A newspaper might be attacked for fairly presenting the full picture, but the reading public in another case, or maybe the same case, could perceive the newspaper as complicit in a coverup if it does not aggressively expose the facts.
The possibility of innocent priests being accused and branded is of concern, but newspapers are watchful on the credibility of the accusations. It was also noted that there have been few denials by dioceses on accusations and that church authorities, in fact, are often the source of information on accused clergymen.
How about the person who’s involvement in a news story is his or her first? Should we allow them leeway not allowed the media-wise public figure?
As long as the reporter clearly identifies himself or herself and the person realizes the comments are on the record, no particular considerations are allowed. But reporters will avoid humiliating the person by using verbatim, ungrammatical quotes. Better to paraphrase than to highlight such verbal slips.
As Janensch noted, the public generally thinks the news media picks on or bullies the “little people,” and that’s not fair.