Without question, the No. 1 misunderstanding readers have about how mainstream newspapers work is summed up by a caller from earlier this week:
"How can we expect anything The Star writes to be fair, when right here in the Opinion section we have you telling us which way to vote? This is completely unfair, slanted reporting and I find it very offensive."
She was referring to the editorial board's recommendations both in the regular Opinion section and in the special 2012 Election Voter Guide on Sunday.
I don't think papers can explain this too often, and I think it's absolutely understandable why readers don't get -- or believe -- the facts of the matter.
Those facts are that the unsigned editorials in the Opinion section are overseen by the six members of the editorial board: publisher Mi-Ai Parrish, vice president Miriam Pepper, Yael T. Abouhalkah, E. Thomas McClanahan, Barbara Shelly and Lewis W. Diuguid. Parrish doesn't usually attend the board meetings, but she does know about the editorials' topics and can have direct input. The board also oversees and edits the entire Opinion section.
Here's the part that isn't obvious to readers: The members of the board don't have operational input into the news side of The Star's operation (with the exception of the publisher, who can offer input over any aspect of The Star's operation, as she's also the company's president).
That means board members do not attend news meetings. They do not assign reporters or edit their stories. They do not direct news coverage.
The reverse is also true. Reporters and editors don't sit in on the board's deliberations. One exception is that candidates and lawmakers often visit The Star to talk policy, and it's not uncommon for them to speak to the board and reporters at the same time.
Editorials reflect the majority consensus of the board members, and are generally penned by one member on behalf of the rest. Now, it doesn't take a genius to realize that the individual members don't all agree on many matters. McClanahan, in particular, is the only person on the board who regularly takes traditional conservative opinions, and I'm certain he's outvoted not infrequently (though he does write what seem to me like minority editorials on occasion).
However, even readers who understand how the board works often offer suggestions about how The Star and other papers should change the system, which is something of a holdover from the days before newspapers started making a serious effort to report the news in a fair and objective manner.
Readers will sometimes scold me by telling me Star founder William Rockhill Nelson would be horrified to see an editorial board making statements of position. I have to chuckle a bit there, as any reading of the papers during Nelson's life show a strong populist streak throughout the news coverage as well as the position pieces -- and it's clear Nelson was quite a progressive man, particularly judged by his era.
But more to the point, readers often recommend that papers should get rid of editorials completely. I get that point, but I know many others disagree vehemently. Quite frankly, I think this one goes mostly in accordance with one's personal political viewpoints.
Reader Robert A. Bailey made another suggestion recently:
"I would suggest that all editorials authored by more than one person be identified in a manner similar to that of the U.S.Supreme Court and other courts when they render case decisions. This is specifically directed to the editorials of the Star Editorial Board. At the conclusion of the editorial readers would be advised that the opinion was unanimous, split-decision and showing for and against, separate concurring opinions and dissenting and separate dissenting opinions. This practice would allow the reader to better consider and evaluate the opinion."
The board will always disclose who wrote what, but this is a novel, concrete suggestion -- my favorite kind.