An opinion piece in Friday’s Whig awarded the “Rip Van Winkle” board of county commissioners a “generous D” for their performance. Next week, we are told we’ll see a continuation of the grading as each of the commissioners is assessed individually. The last time the Whig scored elected officials was when the daily worried about which Cecil County politician was going to receive credit for resolving the SPCA problem. It was in the emerging days of the animal abuse allegations when the op/ed writers at the paper advanced concerns to a level that never occurred to us, worrying about which official would receive credit for a successful intervention in a potentially damaging situation. In that premature appraisal, as the county commissioners stumbled through the emotionally charged issue, the “community columnist” criticized Commissioners Demmler and Mullin, while assuring readers that Commissioner Hodge was capable of handling the still growing entanglement.
This matter of newspapers turning to citizen journalists, community columnists or whatever you want to call them is a national trend. In this competitive era when corporate owners cut back on content produced by independent journalism professionals, citizen journalists provide legacy media with original local copy, which can be valuable to subscribers. While there is merit in quality editorial content, which helps squeeze out the stale syndicated columns, there are a few things that should be kept in mind.
First, there needs to be full disclosure. If the contributor is a strong supporter of a given politician or a central leader in the cluster of committees shaping local politics, such insight should be provided to readers. There is nothing wrong with being an activist with an agenda, but it needs to be disclosed so informed readers can carefully assess the material, just as one would do on a blog or anywhere else. That way, if the citizen journalists is using the newsprint (or could be using it) to advance his or her favorite candidate or public policy, full disclosure will help readers decide how much creditability to give the source.
Second, especially when the opinion writer is deeply involved in political matters, there needs to be a counterpoint of view so a balance of perspectives is available. The danger, according to a number of professional journals and Mother Jones News, is that a citizen journalist will use the op/ed section to plug his or her favorite candidate or position, while writing articles that aren’t fully disclosed. A point on balance was made by Commissioner Demmler in today’s Whig when she responded to the Cochrane piece. She said that to respond to his comments would take more space than she would be allowed in the paper.