I Can Explain  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   July/August 1998

I Can Explain   

A growing number of editors believe explaining the rationale for controversial decisions to readers and viewers can help strengthen credibility.

By Susan Paterno
Susan Paterno (paterno@chapman.edu) is an AJR senior contributing writer.     

Related reading:
   » Why We Ran the Photo
   » Protecting Vulnerable Children
   » Protecting Sources

The Boston Globe broke a venerated journalistic tradition last fall: The paper published a story about former mayor and gubernatorial hopeful Raymond Flynn's drinking habits without suggesting that they had impaired his work. Not long after, the Washington Post ignored a practice it had made famous during Watergate: It sometimes relied on just one anonymous source in stories about President Clinton's alleged affair with Monica Lewinsky. Then in March, after two boys were arrested for killing four middle school classmates in Jonesboro, Arkansas, the New York Times proclaimed the death of one more journalistic rule: "News organizations once were quick to withhold the names of young people who had been charged with crimes... That self-imposed rule is now gone."

Rape victims are named. Suspects are identified before being arrested. Color photos of child abuse victims are splashed across the front page.

As society's mores evolve, the guidelines journalists use to govern themselves are changing as well. But some decisions invite disdain and anger from the public, who now rank journalists right up there with lawyers and used car salesmen.

What should editors do in such situations? The answer is not to play it safe, say journalists and media experts, but rather to explain to readers and viewers the rationale for potentially inflammatory decisions. If it's clear that a news organization has thought through the ramifications of its actions, it's much more likely that people will respect the ultimate decision even if they don't agree with it.

"We've all had to make decisions we knew were going to tick people off. It's not a matter of breaking the rules, but of being conscious that our role in society will discomfit people often,"

says James M. Naughton, former executive editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and now president of the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. "Sometimes the discomfit will be widespread or so severe that we should slap ourselves and say, 'Do we really want to do this?' If the answer is yes, then we need to do it and give additional explanation to readers."

On the same day the Globe ran its story on Flynn's drinking, for instance, the paper ran a sidebar explaining why it was doing so. "Any time you write about the private lives of public figures, there's going to be controversy," says Ben Bradlee Jr., the Globe's deputy managing editor for projects. Editors had lengthy discussions about the story before it ran, he adds; by publishing the explanatory sidebar, editors were acknowledging that Flynn's drinking "is a sensitive issue, and we should explain our thinking."

The Post clarified its position on using anonymous sources in a lengthy March 15 column by then-Managing Editor Robert G. Kaiser, who explained, "We realize that we strain relations with readers when we ask them, as we did in this case and many others during the past seven weeks, to trust us and our unidentified sources. But we are left in this position once we decide that our first obligation to readers is to give them as good and timely information as we can. And that is our decision, almost always. Informing the readers comes first."

But Kaiser added, "Recent reader reaction has reminded us that we can and should do more to describe how we work in difficult situations... Traditional newspaper journalism leaves insufficient room for dialogue between journalists and their readers. We have resolved to do better."

This type of openness flies in the face of long-held newsroom custom. Ethicist Michael Josephson says that "there's a school of thought in journalism that if you acknowledge questionable decisions, it destroys credibility." But in seminars with the public he has found the opposite to be true. "Every member of the public said explaining decisions enhanced credibility. People aren't shocked by questionable decisions. The biggest obstacle to credibility is arrogance, the silent assumption that 'We know what's best.' "

Almost always, the most controversial news decisions center on ethical or moral concerns. When Chicago Sun-Times Editor in Chief Nigel Wade decided to play the news of a 15-year-old Oregon boy's schoolyard shooting spree in May on pages two and three rather than page one, for example, the paper told readers that "more prominent coverage might harm or frighten vulnerable children."

When editors find themselves debating the ethics of a story or the possibility that it may disconcert or confuse readers, Josephson, founder of the Joseph & Edna Josephson Institute for Ethics in Marina Del Rey, California, encourages them to also run a sidebar reflecting the prepublication editorial dialogue. "Those tend to be a rarity," he says. Instead, explanation, if any, is more likely to appear in a weekly column written by the reader representative, ombudsman or public editor, but only 34 of the nation's approximately 1,500 dailies have such positions.

Some major metropolitan newspapers and a larger number of small town dailies have editors who write regular columns to explain not just controversial decisions but basic journalistic practices, "questions many of us in the business take for granted," says Earl Maucker, editor of Fort Lauderdale's Sun-Sentinel, whose weekly column addresses everything from the use of graphic 911 tapes to why the paper publishes so many advertisements.

Many media executives fear that public trust is eroding, and a flurry of credibility studies, forums, seminars, discussions and projects in the last year have attempted to find ways to buttress public confidence in journalists. As president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, Sandra Mims Rowe, editor of Portland's Oregonian, launched one of the most comprehensive surveys of media credibility this decade, the Journalism Credibility Project. The need to explain news decisions more thoroughly to the public "came up over and over" at an ASNE-sponsored workshop last fall, says Arlene Morgan, the Philadelphia Inquirer's assistant managing editor for readership. "It really has permeated almost every conversation on credibility."

In a speech at ASNE's annual convention in Washington, D.C., in April, outgoing president Rowe singled out San Jose Mercury News Executive Editor Jerry Ceppos and Austin American-Statesman Executive Editor Rich Oppel for praise. In their columns, Ceppos and Oppel "respectfully anticipate readers' concerns and give insights into newsrooms. They don't make excuses. They're not filled with promotional fluff. They communicate standards and help demystify the institution," Rowe said.

Two years ago, Ceppos' newspaper published a photograph of a convicted killer gesturing obscenely toward clicking cameras, with an explanation of why the paper decided to run it. The paper received about 1,200 responses to the photo, two-to-one in favor of publication, says Ceppos.

The San Francisco Chronicle also ran the photo, without considering explaining the decision; nearly all 130 calls the paper received were critical, says Managing Editor Jerry Roberts. Ceppos attributes the mostly positive reaction the Mercury News received to the short explanation, which invited readers to "let us know what you think."

The Chronicle's Roberts says he would definitely consider explaining the decision to run the photo if the same situation arose today. "What we would do differently is put the question on the table: Should we explain ourselves or not?" he says. In the last year, in fact, the Chronicle has explained a series on race and photos of a mentally ill foster child. But, cautions Roberts, explaining too much "becomes a danger, a cover-your-ass device. As editors, we're getting paid for our decision making. I worry about being in a position of defending ourselves all the time."

Ceppos, too, has concerns about appearing defensive. But explaining is not the same as defending, he says. "The idea is to get past the decision and let the reader in on the process. You need to say how you got from here to there." After-the-fact editors' columns are probably less effective than explanations that accompany stories, he adds. When the Mercury News publishes articles using anonymous sources, editors explain why; when it runs stories on Microsoft, editors explain how a subsidiary of the paper's parent company, Knight Ridder, "considers itself a competitor with Microsoft because of the software company's efforts to provide news, entertainment and classified advertising content online."

Explaining to readers "how we operate and make decisions is probably the only subject in the world of journalism where there shouldn't be any controversy," Ceppos says. "People love to know how and why you make decisions. It's an easy way to get some of our credibility back."

Mercury News editors also at times have failed to anticipate reader outcry: once when the paper published a photo of a dead American soldier being dragged through the streets of Somalia, another time when it ran a picture of an assassinated Mexican presidential candidate. The readers' angry response influenced the paper's subsequent decision to explain more, more often, says Mercury News Managing Editor David Yarnold. "We all learn over time," he says.

Neither did editors at the Peninsula Daily News in Port Angeles, Washington, anticipate the objections they would encounter when they published the name of a popular pediatrician suspected of – but not arrested for – smothering a newborn to death in February. A government employee tipped the paper to a state review board's investigation into the doctor's conduct and the hospital's failure to report the incident to police. No one challenged the accuracy of the story, says John Brewer, the paper's publisher. But many people questioned its ethics and demanded to know why editors published the name of a beloved local doctor suspected of such a heinous crime. The local radio and cable television station refused to reveal his name, even while covering a protest of the paper by the doctor's supporters.

Advertisers threatened to boycott, subscribers canceled, a couple of doctors tried to block Brewer's nomination to the local Rotary Club. Brewer, who believes strongly that a newspaper should "publish what you know," didn't expect "the firestorm of reaction," he says. As soon as the controversy erupted, the editor ran several columns explaining the paper's position.

"To us, it was a good, straight story, important information for the community to know," says Brewer – and a story he says he would publish again without hesitation. In the aftermath, the paper's efforts to explain its position averted an advertising boycott, minimized subscription cancellations and allowed Brewer into the Rotary Club, he says. "We got a lot of letters that said: 'Thanks for explaining, now it's clear to us.' " The only thing he would do differently next time: "If we had anticipated the c‚ntroversy, we would have absolutely run an explanation with the story," he says, "anything to make the point clear to readers."

Sometimes editors face resistance from staff members who feel explanations are a form of opinion and have no place in the news pages. Several years ago, the Philadelphia Inquirer published a graphic photo of a Mideast terrorist attack with a cutline explaining "why we thought it was a valid photo fÊr page one," says AME Morgan. Some on the staff disagreed strenuously with publishing the explanation. "They thought our job was to report the news, not explain why we were reporting it," she recalls.

Explanations, the dissenters held, should be published by the ombudsman or on the editorial page. For the most part, Morgan agrees. "I'm for putting the news out, standing on it, and if all hell breaks loose, then explain it. If your reporting doesn't clearly explain why the story is important, maybe you should go back and look at the story." If the methods used to report the story "are so untraditional or controversial, then somehow [the reporter] has to weave that into the telling of the story."

In recent years at the Inquirer, former Editor Maxwell E.P. King recalls incorporating explanations into cutlines or stories about a half dozen times – "an explanation that was no longer than a clause, to explain what you're doing and to acknowledge that the reader is going to react." Readers upset by what they read "often feel that way because they feel left out of the process," he says. "When they know what's going on, even if they disagree, they're satisfied."

King, on sabbatical until November when he returns as associate editor, opposes a prevailing newsroom posture "that any sort of explanation weakens your position." That attitude, he says, "is one of the things that has cost us tremendously in terms of public trust." Many believe that the "father knows best" school of journalism, where editors expect the public to trust them to make the right decisions without explanation, no longer works. "People don't trust institutions in general, and they don't trust the press specifically," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism.
" 'Just shut up and trust me' may not be the best way to enhance our credibility."

?ew York Times editors have tried in the last 10 to 15 years "to be conscientious about making our actions comprehensible to readers," says Allan M. Siegal, an assistant managing editor. At the height of the media frenzy over the Clinton-Lewinsky saga, the Times published "Trust Me: A Media Guide," in which writer Jane Fritsch deflated rumors, innuendos and gossip that had passed for fact in the nation's news outlets during the previous two weeks. The paper concluded: "There are actually precious few uncontested facts in circulation," and traced the origins of the most titillating allegations to such mainstream news organizations as the Los Angeles Times, Newsweek, the Washington Post – even the Times itself.

The Times uses a variety of devices to "let readers get a little closer to the reporter," says Siegal, including news analysis and reporters' and critics' notebooks. "We have a very intelligent readership, and we've always believed in treating our readers like grown-ups. We tend to level with people," he says. That way readers "know what kind of people are doing the reporting; they know how to distinguish us from Matt Drudge or Geraldo Rivera," he adds. "We have a stake in this for a bunch of reasons. Probably the most important is being believed and being differentiated from those whose standards are different from ours."

Explaining is different from apologizing, points out Diane McFarlin, executive editor of Florida's Sarasota Herald-Tribune. McFarlin recently published a sidebar to a page one report on the death of a state prison inmate, explaining why the paper had used unnamed sources in the story. "Staffs resent after-the-fact columns that read like apologies," she says. Instead, McFarlin tries to anticipate readers' questions by "facing them head-on at the time." That approach, she says, has "been well-received by the staff."

Television journalists explain controversial ?ews decisions only in the most extreme or unusual circumstances, say media critics. But one notable exception occurred in April when Jim Lehrer, anchor of PBS' "NewsHour," explained to viewers he had decided to stop using legal reporter Stuart Taylor o? the program because Taylor's commentaries in other media "have caused some blurring of the lines and some confusion about his role with us." In a column about Lehrer's explanation, Los Angeles Times TV critic Howard Rosenberg called it "almost unthinkable in an industry where even news stars are dismissed without viewers being told."

"I wasn't doing it to break new ground," says Lehrer. "Some people don't like the explanation, so you're inviting heat, but that's fine." Viewers "might not agree," he adds. "But at least they have an explanation."

Television news organizations generally have no regular ombudsmen or media reporters "who might turn the spotlight on themselves," says Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post's media writer and cohost of CNN's "Reliable Sources," where he interviews news decision makers "to talk about why they did what they did."

Though "Reliable Sources" has criticized CNN and founder Ted Turner on a number of occasions, he says, "not all news organizations want to grant journalists that freedom." And that, he says, "is a phenomenally dumb decision. Opening up to criticism actually helps your credibility. People see you're willing to take your lumps while you dole them out to everybody else.

"News organizations who hide behind their PR people are demonstrating to readers and viewers that they consider themselves beyond scrutiny. The public is aware of the double standard, and it's one of the factors that drives public anger at the media."

˜espite the efforts of a few, in general "the press doesn't do a good job of explaining itself, for a variety of complicated reasons," says Rosenstiel.

Editors cite fears of seeming defensive, a lack of time, deadline pressure, space constraints, an inability to predict how the public will react, and the possibility that too much reflection might lead to inaction or self-censorship. "If you start to codify the rules, before you know it, 55 people will tell you you violated your own rule," Rosenstiel says. "Plaintiffs' attorneys then use those rules to sue you."

Nevertheless, in Rosenstiel's view explaining news decisions is one part of a larger strategy news organizations can use to bolster credibility, and ultimately, readership.

"Knowing what and who you are, what you stand for," he says, "thinking really hard about how to put it into practice and then explaining it to the public, that's the recipe for good journalism and a successful enterprise."

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