Yesterday the Chicago Sun Times’ announced they would no longer make candidate endorsements, and I think I can see where they’re going. They want to provide High Church Journalism where the product is utterly essential, credible reporting and analysis. If they get out of the endorsement business, the thinking goes, readers will begin to see them as a totally neutral arbiter with unimpeachable trust.
Most of the commentary I’ve seen on Sun Times’ new policy has been from the perspective of journalists and opinion leaders. What journalist doesn’t love the idea of being raised to an unimpeachable platform? Some lament the loss of the guiding wisdom of a newspaper’s editors. All, including the official editorial published by the Sun Times, view it through the prism of what valuable information is provided to or taken way from the news-reading public.
What it you look at the Sun Times’ new policy through a different frame of reference: Community, trust and how readers perceive those things.
Viewed this way, a local newspaper is much more than just a source of information, it is a central gathering point, a “town square” where new ideas are introduced and old ones are debated. Not many town squares physically exist any more, most have been replaced by online gathering points. But just like olden days, if you visit any spot repeatedly, you quickly figure out who the cranks are and who’s got interesting ideas.
For most of their history, newspapers were relied upon as the chief source of straight news and for interpretation of complex events. The public needed newspapers to explain the world in detail, since radio and later newsreels and television, could not do so in the time allotted. At the same time, at least up until the 1950’s, newspapers tended to be fiercely opinionated. Most towns of any size had more than one newspaper, so people could choose which set of opinions they wanted to follow.
Most people in the news business mistake these choices as political, but I believe people choose their news sources the same way they define their identity. Even today there are people in Lake County who read the Chicago Tribune rather than the Daily Herald because they want to be feel connected to the city center. The editorial policies of both newspapers are similar, and if you live on the North Shore, most of the coverage is the same.
Turning back to the town square analogy, if you keep listening (or reading) the writing of a particular person, over time you begin to hear that person’s voice, full of personality and ultimately, bias. The nature of writing by humans makes this revelation inevitable: All reporters and writers are biased, regardless of their protestations to the contrary.
The chief tenet of High Church Journalism is that bias is bad. Reporters are Professionals, many with masters degrees, who are trained to view all stories from a detached distance. This works well when readers have only a few places to get their information, but given a choice, readers will always gravitate towards the news source that already speaks to their existing identity. When a news source refuses to reveal the machinery behind the curtain, in other words the bias that informs decision-making, readers will inherently become suspicious.
People from Ph.D.s to fifth graders are always asking, “What’s their angle?” when offered something. Inherently, news organizations are constantly offering perspective and information. So readers want to know, “What’s their angle?”
Under any transactional circumstances, when you remove open expressions of bias, you only make the other party search for hidden expressions of bias. You create a distrustful environment and a scenario where conspiracy can suspected.
Ultimately I think the Sun Times would be better served by being more open about bias, by allowing news reporters to express it openly, as they do in the British system. Readers are smart enough to make their own decisions about reporter bias, and I think given the choice, they would prefer the tools to do so.
But because the Sun Times has taken the opposite approach, I think they risk not only losing reader trust, but also eliminating the community around their newspaper. For instance, I know more than a few older African-American readers who refer to the Sun Times as, “The Black paper,” and read it solely for that reason. Without editorial support, what will happen to that community?