Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Newspaper Provides Balance in Palestinian/Israeli reports.(Philadelphia Inquirer)(Statistical Data Included)

Academic journal article Newspaper Research Journal

Newspaper Provides Balance in Palestinian/Israeli reports.(Philadelphia Inquirer)(Statistical Data Included)

Article excerpt

Reader complaints are as much a fact of life in newsrooms as are deadlines. Editors normally deal with these through well-established mechanisms such as publishing critics' letters or giving dissatisfied readers an opportunity to vent over the telephone or via email, which also provides editors an opportunity to assess the validity of a reader's concerns. With some intensely emotional issues, however, discontent can be fiery and difficult to allay. Readers' letters negative comments can erode credibility, a matter of profound concern among the nation's editors who have worried about declining public esteem for newspapers for some years now. (1)

The Philadelphia Inquirer faced such intense criticism in the 1990s from two mutually antagonistic sources. Active, highly vocal Jewish and Palestinian groups holding opposing views were intensely unhappy with news coverage of the Mideast. The newspaper tried various approaches. Its editor, ombudsman and assistant managing editor for readership sought to explain the newspaper's coverage in public forums, columns and email exchanges with disgruntled readers. Nothing seemed to work. Critics "were ripping me up," the newspaper's editor Robert Rosenthal said. "I had people spit at me." (2) At one point he received a death threat and had to make a presentation in a synagogue flanked by two detectives. Reporters and editors, believing that they were doing a good job in their reporting, were frustrated and bewildered. When the Jewish Exponent, a newspaper that circulates in the community, set up a Web site to assail the Inquirer, (3) the assistant manager editor for readership, Arlene Morgan, concluded that new, more drastic steps had to be taken. Her editor agreed.

The newspaper subsequently did unto itself what it daily does to public figures and institutions--submit itself to outside scrutiny. This was an unusual step. As the limited use of a news council demonstrates, (4) newspapers dislike having outsiders judge their work. They fear losing invaluable press freedom and being misjudged by people who may not understand the norms and routines of journalism. In another unusually bold step, the newspaper sought help from a source often regarded as irrelevant to their day-to-day workings, university journalism professors. (5)

Eager to ensure that the study would not fuel more criticism, the Inquirer was particularly concerned that the assessment should avoid the appearance of bias. The editors accomplished this by selecting researchers from a university far from Philadelphia, Louisiana State University. None of the three professors in the research team was identified with any political cause in the Mideast. Also to preserve the integrity of the study, the Inquirer adopted a hands-off policy, giving the investigators free rein to design, implement and publish the study.

From the outset, the research team understood that it would be impossible to deal effectively with such concepts as truth or bias, which, like beauty, are in the eye of the beholder. As empirical study indicates, (6) one person's factual statement can be another's lie; one person's authoritative source is someone else's propagandist. And, as everyone knows from real life, it is possible that one side can be in the right and one not. Accordingly, the research team decided to evaluate the newspaper by standards of fairness and balance, which are measurable and make up the foundation of media credibility. (7) The team defined fairness and balance as equal treatment or representation of both parties and tested for these with different coding items. (8) As part of its initial understanding with the Inquirer, the team presented its findings to the newspaper staff as well as to interested members of the Philadelphia community.

This article presents a case study of a newspaper's using academic research to deal with irate critics. It reports the results of the assessment of the Inquirer's Mideast coverage and the newsroom and the public reaction to the study. …

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