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Thursday, Apr. 17, 2014

Challenge of keeping opinion out of news

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

It was 41 years ago today that I strolled into this newspaper office and began work as a cub reporter. I sat down at my manual typewriter and used a nearby paste pot to attach pieces of news copy together.

Armed with a journalism degree, I toiled a 44-hour week for $95. It could be argued I was overpaid.

Vietnam still dominated the headlines and Watergate was still a couple years ahead. I attended virtually every city and school function, more often than not in smoke-filled rooms because in those days, smoking was permitted without restriction. That in itself seems so odd today.

In those days, newspapers carried political party affiliation but were exceeding careful not to display their political bias on the front pages. Those views were strictly relegated to the editorial pages.

But needless to say, much of that has now changed. Today the lines are blurred between news coverage and editorial slant. To argue otherwise is to ignore the obvious.

The New York Times, Washington Post, MSNBC, Fox and others carry their political bias into their "news" reporting. Combine that concerning trend with the massive changes in technology and you have a recipe for a decline in trust and faith in the media. That cynicism is well earned and well deserved.

The result is that the media - newspapers included - are held in record low regard. Journalists rank right along Wall Street bankers and politicians as bottom-feeders in the arena of public opinion. I would have never imagined that 41 years ago.

By some measurements, newspapers are in a slow but gradual decline. Chalk much of that trend to the changes in technology. But don't discount the newspapers' fault in this change. When trust evaporates, you can't expect the following you once enjoyed.

When I opened that door 41 years ago this very day, I had no idea - nor did anyone else - of what the future of the newspaper industry would bring. No one could have predicted the changes in public perception that were to follow. No one!

Though it may sound simplistic, when I first took this seat long ago, the prevailing attitude of the day was that "if you read it in the newspaper, it must be true." And there was pride in the notion that each day, you were writing the history of a community.

In many ways, that side of this business remains the same. But the blurred line between news and opinion that tarnishes some urban newspapers also trickles down to opinions about all newspapers. I wish that were not the case.

These past 41 years in this career have taught me much. I still take pride in recording the events of a small town with accuracy, thoroughness and impartiality. But I also realize that the role of a local newspaper has changed.

We still need to be a cheerleader for our community and we still need to express our opinion on those issues that impact our readers.

The challenge is to keep those two directions separate.

Michael Jensen
Michael Jensen