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Newspaper is a product of its readers

June 23, 2002|by Dick Fleming

I once worked for an editor who, when I was fretting about whether an editorial I had written made an important enough point, reminded me that for 50 cents readers don't get eternal truth.

Fair enough. But what do readers have a right to expect from their local newspaper? And what should the newspaper expect from its readers?

Philosophically speaking, those of us involved in reporting the news like to think we are in the "truth" business. But it is truth with limitations - many of them inherent in the job.

One of the biggest limitations is time.

Newspapers are unique in that at the end of every day there is a deadline by which a new product must have been started, completed and delivered to its customers. When that deadline arrives, whatever information the newspaper's staff has been able to ferret out and cobble together becomes the news of the day. It is sometimes ragged and almost certainly incomplete, constituting what has been called "a first, rough draft of history."

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It is - as even that romanticized phrase suggests - a work in progress.

There is always one more question that could be asked, one more source who could be interviewed, one more fact that could be verified that would make the day's draft of history more complete' or, in some cases, altogether different. It doesn't matter; whatever information has been assembled when the deadline bell symbolically tolls becomes, officially, "the news."

As for those unasked questions, unavailable sources and unverified facts, tomorrow is always another day - and another chance to make the record a little more complete.

If the process itself weren't daunting enough, the newspaper is only as good as its reporters - who are only as good as their sources - and its editors - who are only as good as the instincts that guide them as they shepherd stories into print.

All of us are, of course, fallible. A reminder of that fallibility is on display several times a week in the corrections that are published when we or one of our sources get our facts wrong.

So, at our best, we try very hard to get our facts straight - and, to an astonishing degree, we succeed. Failing that, we amend them for the record and move on.

But gathering and reporting facts is one thing; getting at the truth can be another matter.

A few months ago I took a phone call from a reader who thought the newspaper's coverage of a public hearing was slanted because it included remarks only by speakers supporting one side of the issue discussed.

It turned out that many of the citizens who spoke early at the hearing took the same side on the issue. Opposing views were expressed, but not until the reporter had left to file a story by the evening deadline.

None of the facts of the story was wrong; but as a record of the discussion at that hearing, it was incomplete.

As a practical matter, on any given day the whole truth of things may be just beyond our reach. What makes our profession feel noble to me is the dedication I see among people who, despite that knowledge, strive every day to compile a record of issues and events that is accurate and as thorough as circumstances permit.

In the end, though, we may be only as good as our readers.

Journalism, like democracy, works best as a participatory exercise. Readers who are involved in their communities, who take part in public discussions, who contact the newspaper to offer information and ideas - and, yes, to criticize and demand that we do a better job - play a valuable role in helping us make the public record more complete.

And that's the truth.

Dick Fleming is weekend editor aat The Herald-Mail. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, extension 2329, or by email at dfleming@herald-mail.com.

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