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Coverage of Madison protests led to charges of bias against newspapers, panelists say

April 29, 2011

Joe Radske, Teryl Franklin and Don Heubscher

During the protests in Madison over the governor’s proposal to do away with collective bargaining for unions, Wisconsin newspapers received numerous complaints that their coverage was biased.

The complaints of bias came from supporters of both sides of the issue, said a panel of journalists discussing “Ethics & Values – Accuracy, Corrections and Revisions on the Fly” Friday, April 29, at MPI/APME NewsTrain workshop in Madison.

“We live in an American Idol society,” said panelist Don Huebscher, editor of the Lader-Telegram, Eau Claire, Wis. “People think if they can get enough votes they can change the truth.”

People can’t tell the difference between commentary and news reporting, said panelist Teryl Franklin, managing editor of the Wisconsin State Journal, Madison.

She said she recently received an email message from a reader wanting to know why the paper hadn’t covered an issue brought up in a column online.

Huebscher said perhaps people are confused because of all the commentary on television. He said editors need to explain the difference and then stay consistent with their coverage.

Panelist  Joe Radske of Channel 27, WKOW, said his station’s reporters were treated rudely because they do news for the local Fox station. People were connecting his station with Fox News commentators and not realizing they are news reporters.

Credibility is important for all news organizations, the panelist said. Being accurate and correcting mistakes promptly are important for news organizations.

“Screwing up a story is like having a bad meal at a restaurant,” Huebscher said. “No matter how many times you go back and get a good meal, you’ll never forget the bad one.”

Huebscher said he has a checklist for assigning editors to follow. It includes double checking all names, titles and places mentioned in the story, checking quotes, including background and determining if the story is fair, among other points.

Radske said his station also has a policy on corrections that includes correcting mistakes as soon as possible, making sure more than one set of eyes reads copy and attribution does not provide absolution, among other points.

When asked by moderator Margaret Holt of the Chicago Tribune what their policy was on removing a story from their Web pages because the article was now embarrassing and is preventing someone from getting a job, all three said they do not take down articles if they were true.

All three said that when they run a correction, they attach an editor’s note on stories posted on the Web and on their archive versions.

Holt said the Tribune is currently examining 150 police blotter stories to see if the paper eventually reported the dissolution of the cases and if it running minor crime stories is worthwhile.

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