Roanoke Times editor Carole Tarrant in today’s From the Newsroom column:
On the back of today’s Horizon section, you will find a full-page guide to The Roanoke Times’ newsroom.
We believe it’s our first-ever such guide — at least a first in this generation of Times journalists. And it fulfills one of my goals in becoming editor of this paper last year — to provide a wider window through which you, the reader, can see how we do our work at 201 W. Campbell Ave.
Ever wonder where to send story ideas? Or how to get reprints of our photos? The guide answers those questions and many others we hear frequently. It also provides names and contact information for key newsroom editors.
It’s these folks who, day in and out, make many of the ground-level decisions about what we cover and how, in news, sports and features. I hope you will look them up and share news you have heard or pass along feedback on how we’re doing.
[You can browse a PDf of our newsroom guide here. ]
And if this guide was of service or left you with more questions, let me know. We’ll continue to answer your questions in this occasional Sunday column, as well as on a new editors’ blog that launched last week on roanoke.com.
The blog shares the same name as this print column, “From the Newsroom,” but it will be updated frequently as we respond to your questions, explain the backstory on our coverage and tell you about additions or changes to the paper and Web site.
We’re kicking this off with an invitation for you to go online and talk about what becomes a hot topic at this time every four years — the presidential campaign and complaints of media bias.
We hear about it, incidentally, from both sides.
One caller recently left a voice mail criticizing us for “burying” a “Troopergate” wire story about Todd Palin’s involvement in the firing of Alaska’s public safety commissioner. The story ran on page eight of our “A” section, which is not atypical of our campaign coverage throughout 2008.
“I just wonder how much money the Republican Party is paying you to quash that story,” the caller said. “Don’t think your readers aren’t watching.”
A few weeks earlier, a reader mailed us a clipping from The Roanoke Times with this headline: “Obama vows to fight McCain’s attacks.” The reader wrote above the headline, “Would you say this is one-sided? This is why I don’t subscribe to the newspaper.”
Presumably the reader was unhappy that the first paragraph of The Associated Press story began with Barack Obama attacking John McCain as a “relic of the disco era.” The second paragraph, however, provided the context and balance — Obama had come out swinging because the then-latest polls showed McCain and running mate Sarah Palin picking up votes.
I’d like to pass along two points that are relevant in a discussion about bias and The Roanoke Times.
The first is a reminder to look at the reader’s guide we published today. Our editorial page editor, Dan Radmacher, leads an editorial staff that writes unvarnished opinions. That’s their calling, and their work appears on the pages labeled “Opinion” that run daily in the back of the Virginia section (excluding Sunday’s Horizon section). Dan reports to our publisher, Debbie Meade.
As at many U.S. papers of this size and larger, the editor of the newspaper doesn’t weigh in on editorial pages or sit on the editorial board. I have no part in endorsing a candidate or advocating a position on a local issue. I supervise the 105-person newsroom, which resides a floor above the editorial staffers.
I make that point as a practical matter: Many of you send your letters to the editor to me when Dan Radmacher is the rightful recipient.
But I also make it because I believe the claims of bias aren’t really claims of bias; they’re challenges to our professionalism as journalists.
Are the employees of the Roanoke Times newsroom free of bias? To me, the answer is simple: Of course not; we’re human. You can’t escape what you grew up with.
But you can accept the mantle of a professional journalist working in a professional U.S. newsroom. It’s a place where the following questions are asked every day, not just this time of year: Are we being fair? Are we upholding our duty to report with accuracy, sensitivity and context? Are our ears open and are we truly listening to every voice?
This time of year, in particular, our editors tie themselves up in knots striving to inject fairness and purity into a wholly political process. Over the course of a campaign, we strive to give competing candidates a close approximation of equal space and treatment in the newspaper, right down to examining the size of photos we run with stories.
But on a daily basis it’s not always an exact science, and basic news value will sometimes dictate which candidate gets the most attention.
Obama’s visits to Southwest Virginia have resulted in him getting featured more prominently in our paper those days. He’s simply been in the state and region more often than McCain. His stop in Roanoke Oct. 17 warranted significant coverage because of its historic significance — it marked the first time a presidential candidate of his stature visited the city during a general election campaign since John F. Kennedy visited here in 1960.
Palin, the first female Republican vice presidential candidate, has her own place in history, and we expect to prominently feature her Monday visit in Salem.
This campaign season has provided many more examples where our editors have tediously deliberated over a story’s position on the page as well as the wording in a headline.
Such discussions about fairness are as steeped into this newsroom’s walls as the smell of ink and paper.
Yet, at this time of year in particular, I wonder if journalists would hear less about bias if we did more to explain all we do to be fair.
Look for this column and the “From the Newsroom” blog to take a swing at doing just that.