Striking a balance


WHAT CONSTITUTES fair and balanced reporting, especially in politics, is foremost in the minds of readers. The difficulty is how one defines fair and balanced.

For some it means having all sides of an issue in every article. For others it means that every article - on any point on the political spectrum - must be in the same news space as any preceding political story. For still others it is whether the article confirms or opposes their preconceived point of view.

Sam Davis, of Towson, said that a July 29 Sun article about John Kerry and several of his former Vietnam Swift boat comrades was not balanced because it failed to mention that a group, "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth," had challenged accounts of Mr. Kerry's actions in combat. "The implication was that Mr. Kerry was the choice of the Swift boat comrades," Mr. Davis said. "Where was the reporting about the 'Swifty' organization? And where is the balanced reporting in The Sun?"

The Sun has published articles about the Swift boat group, including a story on Friday's front page that reported Mr. Kerry's strong reaction to the group's questions about his decorated service in Vietnam and the political ramifications for both Mr. Kerry and President Bush.

Still, it is unrealistic to include in every story about Mr. Kerry's war experiences that some veterans challenge whether he performed heroic deeds and deserved his medals. To be "balanced" would require that every article about a military decision by President Bush include a section about how he cannot account for all of his Air National Guard time during the Vietnam War.

Mr. Kerry's war record is a hot-button issue fueled by the Swift boat group's televised ads. These veterans who oppose his presidential bid at least have war experiences that provide an authentic viewpoint. News stories about this group are legitimate, but because the groups' televised ads have been paid for by supporters of President Bush, the partisan nature of the material is unmistakable. These criticisms, which sometimes have been fueled by anger over Mr. Kerry's anti-war activism after his military service, have been refuted by many, including Republican Sen. John McCain.

Is it possible to be completely fair and balanced about this particular issue? Does it matter if our politicians served in Vietnam? If they did not, do they have the credibility to challenge the courage of those who did? The answer may be in the eye of the beholder. What is more important is recognizing that the Vietnam era was a galvanizing period for many young Americans and that the extent of one's participation in the events at that time does matter today.

E. Niel Carey, of Ellicott City, said The Sun was blatantly one-sided in its presentation of two stories in the Aug. 13 edition. The two stories were placed adjacent to each other on Page 3A with the headlines, "Bush portrays Kerry as weak," and "Cheney mocks Kerry's use of 'sensitive' about terror."

"In each case, the content of the article offers some rebuttal, but to the casual reader, the headlines give a completely biased picture," Mr. Carey said. "Whoever wrote, assembled, edited and approved these articles and headlines should be given a 'timeout' for their partisan and biased work. Careful readers of your paper deserve better."

The headlines were indeed ill-considered and the articles poorly placed. This was a result of poor decision-making, not calculated intent. But the effect was one of imbalance and unfairness.

An Aug. 15 front-page story, "Stem cell dispute pulls science into political arena," was, according to Laurel Robinson of Gwynn Oak, "a perpetuation of the myths about the motives of conservatives, because you pitched President Bush against medical researchers." Ms. Robinson added that the article should have emphasized the distinction between using embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells for research.

The original article did contain a sentence that referred to adult stem cells and how they are considered to have less promise than embryonic cells, but it was cut for space. And because the story was designed to focus on the debate over embryonic cell research, the reporting was centered in that area.

The Sun is working to close the perception gap between how readers define fair and balanced and how journalists define it. For reporters and editors, every article, photograph and headline is unique and can be affected by things they cannot control. News and copy editors "put the newspaper to bed at night" and have a large impact on the final presentation. And almost always they make the newspaper a lot better.

Paul Moore's column appears Sundays.

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