Listening to the readers in a year of challenges

THE BALTIMORE SUN

In the final weeks of 2004, I've spent many hours talking with readers who criticized and questioned recent changes and cuts in the Today and Business sections of The Sun.

It is a large part of a public editor's responsibility to be a visible source of information and a mediator between readers and the newspaper. Editors at The Sun heard the recent flood of reader feedback loud and clear. They are still assessing what they might do about it.

As 2005 begins, they know that readers are, more than ever, examining, complaining, praising and demanding explanations about the priorities and credibility of The Sun and other newspapers.

To deal with this increased critical attention, more newspapers are appointing public editors or ombudsmen to assess complaints and help make their institutions more accountable and transparent.

It's a job with some interesting challenges.

Last year I received opinions and comments from readers that ranged from brilliant and logical to angry and illogical. I have been called everything from an apologist to a tough critic. The column has been described as hyperbolic and insightful.

The most important lesson I've learned is something I consistently tell The Sun's editors and reporters: Listen to what readers are saying and take it seriously because they are taking what we do very seriously.

For many readers, the long-standing public assumption that if it's in a newspaper, it must be right no longer holds.

The issue of what constitutes "fair and balanced" coverage was paramount last year. The most sensitive areas of reporting - politics and government, Iraq and the rest of Mideast - are so thoroughly examined for nuances of tone, word usage and interpretation that writers and editors often feel they are under a microscope.

This intense oversight cuts both ways - the insistence on more precision is correct, but a reluctance to be aggressive out of fear of criticism or retribution is not.

The media contributed to readers' mistrust and frustration with missteps last year:

A 60 Minutes story on allegations that George W. Bush received preferential treatment during his Air National Guard service was based on fraudulent documents, which reporter/anchor Dan Rather failed to authenticate. A televised apology was eventually made.

The media became so obsessed with tangential stories like filmmaker Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 polemic against President Bush and the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth's allegations against Sen. John Kerry that reporting on more substantive issues was overlooked.

An independent investigative panel of editors found that Jack Kelley, a longtime correspondent at USA Today, was guilty of "years of fraudulent news reporting." The report also noted that many top editors at USA Today ignored or rejected warnings and evidence of this. Kelley and two top editors resigned.

A number of mistakes by The Sun exacerbated a contentious relationship between the newspaper and Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s administration, leading the governor to ban state employees' from speaking to two Sun journalists. Negotiations to resolve the issue are continuing.

Beyond questions about accuracy and fairness, this column has examined errors committed by Sun journalists, questions about the placement and selection of articles, the tone and substance of headlines, and changes in the newspaper's personnel and content.

Along the way, I have worked to demystify The Sun's operations by describing how and why stories are reported, how news decisions are made, how deadlines affect the process, and how journalists and readers often have very different views about what is important.

I also write a weekly memo for The Sun's staff based on reader comments about use of anonymous sources, grammar, spelling, factual errors and other concerns. The memo also highlights what I view as some of the newspaper's best work.

Since I became public editor eight months ago, the opinions, disagreements, frustrations, loyalty and sheer knowledge of many Sun readers have been eye-opening to this 28-year newsroom veteran.

And some readers' appreciation of the paper's openness has been rewarding. These recent comments are representative:

"Hello, Paul Moore. In fact, your properly somber column yesterday was oddly comforting," said Susanna Craine, about a recent column on changes in the newspaper. "I think its because it was complete acknowledgment of how seriously readers take their paper and how pained they are at changes that flew at them under the rubric of revamping."

"Today, I went straight to your column (yes, yours is one the columns I read each week)," said Judy Nall. "I appreciate your explanation, however too little too late."

Another reader said: "I have just read Paul Moore's column and I must say he could not have expressed my thoughts and concerns more precisely than if I had written it myself. I want to say thanks, Mr. Moore."

No, please, let me thank all of you.

Paul Moore's column appears on Sundays.

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