When Newspapers Choose a Side

I read an article by AP writer Jay Reeves on EditorandPublisher.com that blew my mind. The title says it all : In Shocker, Alabama's Largest Paper Comes Out Against Death Penalty

Here’s a little taste:

Even if all the flaws disappeared, the paper said, executions should be halted in the name of promoting a "culture of life" that includes opposition to abortion, embryonic stem-cell research and euthanasia.

"We believe all life is sacred. And in embracing a culture of life, we cannot make distinctions between those we deem `innocents' and those flawed humans who populate Death Row," said the newspaper, which reversed decades of support of capital punishment.

I ask you, budding journalists, should a paper ever choose a side on any issue? My instincts say no – it’s unethical – no matter what.

Not only is the Birmingham News taking sides on the death penalty, they have also decided that they are anti-abortion, pro stem-cell research, and all for euthanasia – who asked them anyway?

Is it not a newspapers job to stay objective? How can a paper strive for objectivity when they are choosing sides on an issue, like in this example, or choosing political parties, like in how The New York Times decided to back Republican mayor Michael Bloomberg?

I was amazed that in this day and age a newspaper would go so far as to choose sides on an issue that are so black or white. The death penalty should be an ongoing debate between people – whether they write a letter to the editor or an editorial about their views – but never should either side of the debate be sponsored by a newspaper, especially the largest paper in the state.

Josh (not verified) @ November 22, 2005 - 6:03am

A lot of newspapers take sides with the full support of the communities they serve. When a newspaper does an investigative series on heroin addiction in its city, or homelessness, say, it's coming out against the local drug trade or against poverty. When a newspaper files suit to have sealed political records released or court transcripts opened up, it is taking the side that the people deserve to know.

But as I have written and you have, too, there are some cases in which newspapers should not take sides.

And this case is one of them. It risks alienating readers, advertisers and employees (and in the current newsroom culture, I'm not sure which, industrially speaking, is the biggest sin of those), and, worst of all, it makes it very easy going forward to question the paper's reporting on any controversial topic.

A newspaper's primary goal is not objectivity in reporting the news. It is the appearance of objectivity. But now any story about abortion legislation, an anti-choice rally or a clinic bombing will be suspect -- and so will a number of other stories including, but not limited to the issues the editorial board has taken positions on.

In this era of declining circulations and charges of political bias from all sides, coming out on issues is just a really dumb idea.

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