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Ombudsman

Is Balancing an Act?

By Michael Getler
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page B06

Reporters, editors, readers and critics have argued endlessly about objectivity: whether journalists can set aside their inner thoughts and achieve objectivity in their work. I believe many manage to meet this challenge. But it is a goal that is hard to achieve and an issue about which it is hard to be convincing.

On the other hand, the idea of fairness and balance is one that has ascended among the unwritten golden rules of journalism, in part, because it seems a lot easier to spot. You feel you know when you do, or don't, see it in a story.

Michael Getler is The Post's ombudsman. He can be reached at (202) 334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com, or c/o The Washington Post, 1150 15th Street, N.W., Washington, D.C., 20071.

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But can that commendable commitment also become a weakness when there is little real balance to what is being done or said, but journalists or headline writers still bend over backward to present the situation in a balanced fashion? Are readers being misled by a headline or a lead paragraph that suggests balance over a story whose content clearly goes mostly in one direction, or where there is little balance in importance about the misrepresentations by one side or the other? The Post stylebook entry on "Fairness" contains all the right stuff about completeness and not including irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. But it also says: "Fairness includes honesty -- leveling with the reader."

The election battle between President Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry is as bitterly fought as it is close, and it contains what many readers and critics consider many misrepresentations, some far more serious than others. The Post is in the front ranks of those news organizations that make a serious effort to fact-check these assertions as soon as they are made to try to keep the record straight.

It is a tough job on deadline, and the fact-checking itself has not been immune to the occasional error. An Oct. 9 article, "Plenty of Flaws Among the Facts," after the second presidential debate, included one error that wrongly supported a Kerry statement and another questionable defense of a Kerry statement. Then, oddly, the story said that Kerry "misspoke" on another answer and that he "meant to qualify that statistic."

But aside from catching mistakes, several readers have also complained that the paper has presented these stories in such a "balanced" fashion that it has diminished the weight of the assessments. More frequently than not, they contend, this has benefited Bush and Vice President Cheney. These charges undoubtedly have a partisan edge to them. But that doesn't mean they are wrong, or that it couldn't go the other way politically as well. It does mean, in my view, that news organizations need to look hard and fast at whether they are truly "leveling with the reader."

For example, immediately after the vice presidential debate between Cheney and Sen. John Edwards, The Post, on Oct. 6, produced a solid "For the Record" fact-checking story that was headlined "Misleading Assertions Cover Iraq War and Voting Records." Yet you could argue fairly, as I thought some did, that the largest and most important part of this story was the job it did challenging Cheney's statement before a huge television audience that "I have not suggested there's a connection between Iraq and 9/11." But the headline and first paragraph gave no powerful clue about that, or about the fact that when you read through the piece most of it is spent challenging statements by Cheney.

The next day, a fact-checking story carried the headline "Halliburton Charges Jumbled by Edwards and Denied by Cheney." This was also solid reporting, but the thrust of the article essentially backed up and explained most of Edwards's charges. Yet the one instance of a "jumbled" reference by Edwards to two contracts got the second paragraph of the story and the headline.

The following day, Oct. 8, as Bush and Kerry prepared for their second debate, The Post's front page featured a story headlined "Candidates Use Arms Report to Make Case." It was about a fiery exchange between the two over the just-released report by the chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq. I thought this was a very well-done story with a proper and balanced, but bland, headline that may not have invited much readership. But some readers described the story as "disappointing," as one put it, in treating the report as "a subjective piece of data" rather than one of facts vs. intentions and that The Post's own reporting a day earlier had described as contradicting the Bush administration's claims about weapons of mass destruction.

That same day, the New York Times published a lengthy "Political Memo" inside the paper by two of its leading reporters headlined "In New Attacks, Bush Pushes Limit on the Facts." The paper, I would guess, caught a lot of heat for that from Bush supporters. But the headline reflected what the story reported and backed it up, while also including administration views disputing the criticism.

The Post has done such things as well, most memorably, in my view, a prescient front-page piece before the war, by White House reporter Dana Milbank on Oct. 22, 2002, headlined "For Bush, Facts Are Malleable," that noted factual challenges to some of the rationale for invading Iraq.

Many readers make clear they appreciate The Post's fact-checking of debates, and of the claims in the nominees' advertising. But unless you are paying close attention, those nicely balanced headlines and lead paragraphs may not draw you into the story. Too often recently, as one reader put it, "your reporting indicates some inability or lack of desire to hold both sides to the same standards. We don't need recital of an equal number of misstatements but rather a fair evaluation of the validity of those statements."

Michael Getler can be reached by phone at 202-334-7582 or by e-mail at ombudsman@washpost.com.


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