Many thanks to Juli Parrish for taking a turn in the Public Editor's chair last week. We have more guest editors on the calendar for coming weeks.
Here are my comments on the 10/29/08 UMD Statesman.
THINGS I LIKE
Lots of news
The election is leading the news these days, unavoidably, but there's plenty of other news out there. This week's Statesman does a good job of striking a balance.
The news section includes stories about the state legislative races in Duluth, a Hillary Clinton visit to the Iron Range, and the student-run debate on campus, but readers find lots more: the city's "300-foot rule," wind energy, a sizable drug bust on campus, and a visit by a nationally-known speaker on race. That's a smart and reasonable blend of stories.
Heads and pre-heads are cool
The pre-headlines on the sports page are helpful. I like knowing at a glance that this is a piece about women's hockey. It's a great example of how a well-thought-out use of headlines, sub-headlines and pre-headlines make a paper more readable. On that note, I still wish letters to the editor got headlines instead of just the writers' names. Every time I turn to the Opinion page I find myself doing a quick scan of each letter to see what it's about and then running back to the top to start actually reading. A headline would help me out.
Quote of the week
Dave Buckner rolls out a great quotation in his story about the 300-foot rule. He gives us Jay Fosle, a member of the city council, explaining his opposition to the rule that new rental properties must be at least 300 feet apart.
"It's communistic ways that we're telling people what they can and cannot do with their home that they bought and paid for," said Fosle. "This needs to go. It's not right for our community."You just know that this discussion at the city council was full of jargon and boring procedural blather. But there were spicy exchanges too – people are passionate about this issue. Dave did a fine job of giving us a feel for the discussion with this quotation. He boiled down the numbers and the cold facts in the body of his story and gave us a quotation of someone speaking from the heart.
THINGS TO THINK ABOUT
In that very same story there's a small hole that could use filling: What is the 300-foot rule?
It's easy, and understandable, for reporters and editors to forget that readers don't have all the background on a story – especially a story like this one that's been in the news repeatedly for months and months. Some readers are new to the story, though. Or they've forgotten the details. I'd like to see at least one paragraph that spells out plainly what it is these people are arguing about.
Informing the electorate – or not
I don't suppose there's anything more fundamental to journalism in a democratic society than helping citizens make informed choices at the polls. So I applaud the Statesman for its efforts over the past few issues to give readers useful information about the coming election.
In that spirit, I was glad to see a story about state legislative races. The problem is that the story is inaccurate – irresponsible, even.
It's difficult to tell at a glance who's running for what, and there's no indication anywhere who these candidates represent. Where's District 8A? (Way the heck outside of Duluth, as it turns out, and very few UMD students live there.)
Meanwhile, there's no mention of District 7A where most UMD students live. But District 5B, which is mostly on the Iron Range, gets included.
Worse yet, there are mistakes.
Ryan Stauber is not running in 7B. He's running in 7A. District 7B candidates include Allan Kehr and Jay Cole, who didn't even get mentioned.
The information here is also unintentionally misleading.
Using "Rep." to stand for Republican is confusing. Associated Press uses "Rep." to mean "Representative" – a member of the House of Representatives. In District 5B, for example, the Statesman says "Rep. John Larson is running…." That sounds as if Larson is the incumbent, since he's called "Rep(resentative?) John Larson."
In reality, Tony Sertich is the incumbent. He's served four terms. John Larson has never held any elected office, but since there's no mention of who currently holds the office it sounds as though Larson is the incumbent and Sertich is the challenger. In fact, there's no way to tell here who currently holds any of these offices or if any of these candidates have ever been elected to any office at all.
It's also unfair and misleading to list only some of the candidates.
For example, in District 6B there's no mention of Mary Murphy, who has represented that district for 31 years and is running for re-election. Only her opponent is listed. Similarly, in District 8A there's no mention of Bill Hilty who has been the House member from that district for six terms. And in 7B, which I already discussed, only Roger Reinert appears. The article skips his two opponents while mistakenly including a candidate from another district. And, once again, District 7A – the district that UMD is in – gets left out entirely.
The little disclaimer at the end doesn't get the Statesman off the hook: "Not all candidates running for state offices have created their own Web pages." The paper needed to do more than a Google search to prepare this story. The Statesman abdicated its responsibility to readers by presenting incomplete and inaccurate information.