Are you regularly communicating your policies to your readers?
The Inlander/September 2009
A reader challenges your policy for reporting on B-squad sports or questions why a particular quote wasn’t included in a story. Your newsroom has a brainstorming session to discuss how its election coverage can be more relevant to readers. A reporter is caught red-faced for printing a press release charging a local official with unethical conduct but fails to contact the accused for a response.
All of these scenarios are excellent fodder for discussion within a newsroom. And most editors will likely respond directly to the individuals who raise the questions.
But how many newspapers take the time to explain their policies and operations to the broader audience on a regular basis? A column by the editor or publisher should be a regular feature on the editorial page. Even more effective is regular and timely communications through a blog.
Such columns serve a variety of purposes. Educating readers on newspaper policies should be a priority. What are the guidelines for letters to the editor – why isn’t every submission published? Why, or why not, does a newspaper report suicides? Reader comments and questions provide a neverending stream of issues to address.
A newspaper’s role as a government watchdog provides ample opportunities for initiating conversation with readers as well. What is the significance of a state’s open meeting law? Why does a newspaper demand the details behind a public employee firing? How does a proposed federal privacy law threaten the disclosure of information vital to citizens’ everyday lives?
Columns from publishers and editors should be a regular element in previewing or explaining coverage. Newspapers devote immense resources to public affairs reporting; a column might educate readers why an advance is more important than coverage of a meeting. Election coverage is one of the most intensive and exhaustive tasks tackled by newsrooms; the hows and whys of coverage are ready-made content for connecting with readers.
Three points are important in the explanation of all newspaper policies and operations:
- Have the same person – preferably the editor – communicate policies. It’s acceptable to acknowledge differences of opinion among staff, but one person should be the liaison to the community. Also, be sure to share policies with all newspaper employees. In that regard, remember the people on the front line – no one is more important than the receptionist – who will likely be the first to field a question or complaint. Receptionists should not communicate the policy, but they should understand policies are in place and direct inquiries to the appropriate person.
- Be open to feedback and criticism. Policies, to be effective, must have a foundation of principles. At the same time, they should be subject to review depending on extenuating circumstances.
- Don’t be afraid to admit mistakes or errors in judgment. A declaration saying “we erred” will go a long way toward earning respect and trust from readers.
Don’t underestimate the final point. Witness President Obama’s recent misstep when he said Sgt. James Crowley “acted stupidly” for arresting black Harvard scholar Henry Lewis Gates Jr. The president immediately said he should have chosen his words more carefully and followed up with the much publicized sharing of a beer with Crowley and Gates at the White House. Any prlonged public discourse was squelched.
Each newspaper should tailor policies to suit its operation and then take steps to communicate those policies with readers. Talking with people – individuals inside and outside the newspaper – is arguably the most important aspect of developing policies. Connecting with many people guarantees thorough examination of the various perspectives on policies. The more opinions that are solicited, the stronger the policies will be.
In the end, the newspaper must make the final decision. But readers will appreciate that policies are not made on a whim.