Fair and Balanced? Citizen Journalist Grades County Commissioners

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.

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10 responses to “Fair and Balanced? Citizen Journalist Grades County Commissioners

  1. Excellent observation as usual. Due to other commitments I am unable to keep a close watch on the Cecil Quotidien these days, but like sands through the hourglass, I can always count on its biased coverage and your prompt debunking. Too bad the daily doesn’t have any intellectuals on the beat!

  2. I have never since such terrible reporting in my life! Glad to hear they went bye-bye!! Let’s see what happens now!

  3. Cochrane is a columnist, not a ‘citizen journalist.’ he has a clear point of view, and he writes on the editorial opinion page, not the front page of the newspaper. at least he keeps up with what is going on in the county unlike those two other oldtimers who seem to be writing from a right wing retirement home somewhere.

  4. Louise: Thanks for posting your thoughts on this.

    Cochrane’s pieces are something I read every week because he finely crafts and presents his arguments. Too, it was local content dealing with the tougher subjects that the professional staff wasn’t able to get a grip on. Now that was a real value proposition for subscribers and and advertiers as those highly paid publishers tried to figure out how to delivery content. It would only take me a few minutes to cut through the front page matter (missing the adveritising) and look for his piece. Then I’d read it.

    My problem comes when print turns its pages over to columnists without doing two things: providing full disclosure to subscribers, especially when the paper’s regular op/ed writer is deeply involved in shaping campaigns, the party or some particularly advocacy position. After providing an appropriate level of disclosure for the many readers not closely monitoring Cecil’s political environment, allow for the other point of view. That really wouldn’t be that hard and if they had a regular colunmnist providing the opposite perspective, with equal ability, what value they’d provide for subscribers and advertisers. It really wouldn’t be that hard.

    Mother Jones News has done some excellent reporting on this problem as main stream media looks for free content (to fill its page) that’s not staff generated.

    I remember a few years ago when a professional writer retired to the county. Though his perspective was very conservative he approached the daily about doing a column that he said would always have a local orientation and poke at the leadership with some regularity. This writer wasn’t interested in anyone candidate’s success. He would just see this has subjects for his columns, though it would’ve been far conservative. The writer said to them, I’ll get someone else to write local content from the other perspective.

    He was always particularly had on Commissioner Demmler and from my perspective she is our most thoughtful and considerate elected official. While her political perspective is far, far from mine, I’ve grown to have a lot of respect for her. Considering our different views I didn’t think that would happen. But as I’ve watched her grow professionally into the position, I’ve noticed how she actually listens and, in time, will respond in a thoughtful way to the subject. I can understand her thoughts and though I may disagree, I see what she’s thinking about. For some reason, Cochrane was particularly hard on her and she’d then have to repsond with those limited letters to the editor (250 words). I noticed that with others too, when they’d have to answer his piece. If you’re going to give voice to a op/ed subject, at least open your column to an equal response. It is really hard to cart your response in a 250 word letter to the editor.

    Anway my thoughts on the subject. Thanks for posting. This one of the things blogs are permitting, a range of perspectives, with quick feedback.

  5. You know I usually agree with you, especially when that old history teacher gets on your case! I do agree that the paper should put a paragraph at the bottom of cochrane’s columns, telling the reader he is on the Republican committee (if he still is, i do not know) or that he used to be.

    But what is the alternative here in cecil county? so many people (not you) are afraid to speak up because they will be attacked or the rumor mill will go after them outside anything that gets into the news. I do not care about somebody’s political party name but what they are not afraid to say. I don’t think the paper should have to have a Democrat to stand against Cochrane. I think he is pretty independent minded despite whatever party label he might have. I think his column is the best thing in the paper even if i don’t agree with him every time (And sorry, sir, I think he and you should be harder on Mrs. Demmler who I think is an embarrassment.)

    The real disgusting thing is that the paper has nothing but conservative national writers on the opinion pages. They even dropped Dear Abby because they said she was getting into “controversial issues.” I think they just didn’t want to spend the money to buy her column.

  6. crazyhistoryteacher

    What did I do!? Here I am being on my best behavior and you start pick on me. Gosh! I’m trying to keep my “needling sense of humor” under control!

  7. crazyhistoryteacher

    And another thing, who are you calling old?

  8. Louise:

    We’re not that far apart on what we’re saying. Put a note on the bottom indicating whatever roles a “citizen columnist” is filling so the reader is informed. If he is the chair of the Republician Central Committee or one of the half-dozen other republican committees in the county, just note it. We’re obligated to let readers know the orientation someone is coming with. One of the rumors I heard was that he was also the chairperson of the Hodge campaign. If that’s the case, let me know so I can factor that into the A+ he gives Commissioner Hodge.

    On the 2nd point about balance, I do disagree. I don’t think it calls, necessarily, for a member of the central committee for the Democrats (or whatever group), but surely if we’re going to have “citizen columnists” that have an agenda, we’ve got to provide the other perspective. Why not reach out and get that opposing viewpoint? It’ll be good for readership to have the opposite view or at least more than one “citizen columnist”. I do think we’re obligated to reach out for the other side, especially when you are the only “citizen columinst,” especially when you have an agenda. It shouldn’t be that hard to arrange for a view more viewpoints and the less agenda-oriented the individuals are the better. Some of our best columnists going back for decades didn’t want to leader the political party. They just wanted to poke at the politicians, which was a good thing. They’d go at it from either side as the politicians gave them the material.

    On Commissioner Demmler, I have to strongly disagree with that one. Considering how far apart Commissioner Demmler and I are on the role government in society, I’ve grown to have great respect for her. Were I grading them, she’d get an excellent grade for thoughtfulness and for listening to people. On the others, I’d have to think long and hard for it is unclear for me.

    On Cochrane’s columns, we largely agreed there. Indeed they were something carefully read since there was local content with depth and analytical understanding. Those topics, I guess, were too much for the pros to deal with. They need to handle the police and fire blotter, the entry level stuff, I guess. Though I will tell you, from my perspective, Terry Peddicord was a great columnist when manegement wasn’t holding him back. I’ll write a little more on that, when I have time to sketch it out properly.

    So how easy is this with a columinist that has some insight on the deeper issues. Let me know about his agenda and get other perspective. It wouldn’t have to be a Demorat, just another perspective or too. Perhaps there’s an independent out there, or an insightful writer that isn’t interested in having an agenda, except for poking at the politicians. surely in a county of 100,000 people, if they’re going to go the route of “community columnists” that shape the party role in the county or a candidate’s role, they can find a few more to balance it all.

    Anyway thanks for your thoughtful comments here too and thanks for the defense with Crazy History Teacher gets on this blogger. Of course, I’m not going to dare call him old, though that’s probably an accurate chracterization, if our guess is right.

    I do hope those well paid publishers at the Whig figure out how to deal with all this soon, since we need a strong print media outlet.

  9. OK, so our history teacher is “crazy,” not “old.” I apologize for forgetting the full name. Personally I would rather be tcalled old instead of crazy, but your name, your choice! LOL!

    What I liked about Peddicord’s columns was he really knew the history and background of an issue and the people involved, even if I did not agree with his opinions. now there is no one left at the Whig with any knowledge of county history. The ‘new’ editor has only been in the county a few years. The company firing two editors and not replacing them means the new man in charge will be too busy just getting the paper into print every day to learn more and get out of the office to get into the community.

  10. Louise:

    As those well compensated publishers begin to finally figure out that they need a little valued content, Terry was exactly the type of editor and colunist they were looking for. He definitely provided something the Cecil Whig needed, a deep understanding of the politics of the county, decades long experience with the county’s politics, and a willingness to sharply criticize the political leadership. Just as with Cochrane whenever Terry had a column in the paer I read it carefully since the pieces were insightful, even when I disagreed. The problem was that management held the newsroom back for so long, putting lots of subjects off limits over the decade. Then when things started changing and he had more freedom to call it the way he saw it, the erosion of readership was already underway.

    After reading the piece Friday about the new management and the new push they’re going to put on the web (what an idea), my guess is that we’ll see a reducation in circulation soon. Lots of papers are reducing the frequency of distribution and the Whig could easily go to once or twice a week and use the web much more effectively for the faster moving stories.

    One other thing, I would surely think that they’d mentioned the departure of the two senior editors at the paper in some sort of positive way (as best as possible) since the long time subscribers and advertisers would want to know about. Terry brought a lot to that paper and his service should have been acknowledge.

    I’ll write a piece here on the blog recognizing some of the excellent work he’s done in Cecil since the 1970s in a week or so, since the here’s another case where the Whig isn’t going to report the story.

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