When all is said and done, a common thread running through most of the queries and complaints that I have received during nearly two years as ombudsman is a plea for fairness.
In recent months, and especially since the presidential campaigns went into high gear after the party conventions, those pleas have centered on The Post's political coverage--and that is the subject of an article by American University professor Jane Hall in the current issue of the Columbia Journalism Review. Going beyond the merely anecdotal, the article takes The Post and other media to task for unduly negative pre-convention coverage of Al Gore's presidential campaign. During the same period, according to Hall's analysis and to a more extensive study conducted by the Pew Research Center and the Project for Excellence, George W. Bush was depicted as "a different kind of Republican--'a compassionate conservative,' a reformer, bipartisan." Post editors will deny that they have a mission to promote or destroy any candidacy in the news pages, but the analyses in CJR--and readers' complaints--should convince them that the question of fairness needs to be taken even more seriously story by story, page by page. Since the convention and Gore's apparent surge in the polls, Hall--and readers --sense a change in The Post's coverage; in fact, some readers complain that it is Bush who is being mistreated, with too much emphasis on such blunders as mispronouncing words. (That is especially irksome to people who frequently find words misspelled or misused in The Post and see such bloopers as an Aug. 21 photo and caption identifying baseball great Hank Aaron as Ghana's President, Jerry Rawlings.)
Politics is not the only area in which questions of fairness arise. I have heard from people who said they were never contacted to give their side of a story. I have heard from numerous readers--and sometimes subjects of news stories--who question whether reporters went into an assignment with preconceived ideas and then came away with the story they wanted to write rather than one that necessarily reflected the truth. That's particularly so when The Post publishes stories about "racial" conflicts that might actually be more complicated than reported. Readers wonder whether reporters can be fair when they shift back and forth between so-called straight news and punditry on television, on the Internet or on the speakers' circuit. Is it fair to announce, as the Reliable Source column did on Sept. 7: "For our part, we hereby declare Miss Clinton's vaunted 'zone of privacy' inoperative. Let the Chelsea chase begin"? One offended reader said: "Chelsea Clinton is a human being, not an animal to be chased."
Journalists often bristle at the slightest suggestion that they are not fair. But in the heat of the chase, in the excitement of the moment, under the stress of the looming deadline, they need to have handy their own little checklists. So do their editors. And they should, above all else, remember The Post's own stated commitment to fairness: "While arguments about objectivity are endless, the concept of fairness is something that editors and reporters can easily understand and pursue. Fairness results from a few simple practices: No story is fair if it omits facts of major importance or significance. Fairness includes completeness. No story is fair if it includes essentially irrelevant information at the expense of significant facts. Fairness includes relevance. No story is fair if it consciously or unconsciously misleads or even deceives the reader. Fairness includes honesty--leveling with the reader. No story is fair if reporters hide their biases or emotions behind such subtly pejorative words as 'refused,' 'despite,' 'quietly,' 'admit' and 'massive.' Fairness requires straightforwardness ahead of flashiness."
I may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (202) 334-7582. Ombudsman