A couple of weeks ago in my email was a message accompanying a letter to the editor. “You might not like it,” the writer said, “because everyone knows you’re a very conservative newspaper.”
Well, not everyone, I thought.
More recently a woman brought a letter and talked with me about it at the counter. “I wanted to see if you’d run this letter to the editor,” she said. “I wondered, because, you know, you lean a little to the left.”
Only if I’m wearing just one shoe, I thought.
This happens all the time—people on the right often think we’re left-leaning, and a lot of people on the left feel we favor the right. That probably means we’re doing our job properly: our goal is journalism, not advocacy. But it does make one wonder how people get these impressions. We have some thoughts on the matter.
The farther rightwing the viewpoint, the more we’re seen as seriously left-leaning. For example, a local troll, facing accusations of email harassment in the wake of his belligerently pushy emails to half the Western Hemisphere, thinks The Sentinel is so leftist we might as well be published in White Salmon, home of the liberal reservation in Klickitat County. (Actually, we’re working on a west-county edition.) We think such interpretations arise because we print letters from people with differing opinions—for some reason, a lot of people assume if we print views they don’t like, it means those views are our own. It’s as if they think a community newspaper is never supposed to print any view that differs from theirs. And that is simply not true, not if a newspaper is concerned with journalism rather than advocacy. Our letters guidelines, printed every week on our opinion page, clearly stipulate the conditions under which we print letters. Not one of those conditions says we print letters with views that only certain constituencies favor.
As an example, we received a couple of letters last week seriously taking Klickitat County Sheriff Bob Songer to task for his stand on interpreting constitutional law. We didn’t run them—not because they opposed Songer but because they violated one of our letters guidelines: no ranting. In the case of one of them, it began with a rationally based argument against Songer—which is fine, in terms of an opinion which the writer had every right to express in a letter. But the more it went on, the more it went off the rails into sheer emotional spewing of invective. That’s a rant. It didn’t run.
Another reason we may be seen as leaning toward one political side or the other is our use of press releases and a misunderstanding about stories that have no bylines. (A byline is the journalism term for the name of the person who wrote a story, “by” so-and-so.) All newspapers run press releases, and almost all press releases have no bylines. Anytime you see a story in a paper without a byline, it’s likely to be a press release. It’s a very rare press release that doesn’t undergo significant editorial surgery, since excellence in English is increasingly rare, but even then it doesn’t get a byline. And press release sources are seldom credited; their purpose is to pass on information, and in most cases credit is neither expected nor provided, as a matter of journalistic routine. It’s possible that some people seeing stories without bylines, reporting on news they don’t like, think they’re written by the editorial staff of the newspaper. Understand that if a story is written by a newspaper staff writer or contributor, a byline is always provided; if there isn’t one, it wasn’t written in-house.
To be sure, the kind and quantity of press releases run in a paper may say something about its selection process. The high road of journalism, a little overgrown with weeds these days, chooses them by value and relevance of news to a community, not by their political flavor. But for those who see a newspaper as a vessel of advocacy, that is hardly satisfactory.
We’ve heard talk of a few people around the area wanting to start their own newspaper, and it’s clear by their tone that a newspaper is actually the last thing they want. Rather, they want something in print that espouses their views and serves as a vehicle of dissemination of those views. Great. Knock yourselves out. There’s likely to be people who will appreciate that. Meanwhile, journalism continues at The Sentinel.