Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, talks to reporters at Trump Tower in December. Evan Vucci The Associated Press
Kellyanne Conway, a senior adviser to President-elect Donald Trump, talks to reporters at Trump Tower in December. Evan Vucci The Associated Press

Joyce Terhaar

It’s fair game to call out journalists’ decisions

By Joyce Terhaar

jterhaar@sacbee.com

January 14, 2017 11:46 AM

If you talk about “The Media” as a single living, breathing organism, coverage of President-elect Donald Trump and the Russians should give you pause.

The news that U.S. intelligence agencies briefed Trump and President Barack Obama about a document claiming Russia had collected compromising information about Trump made clear there is no collective The Media.

Instead, we have private, public and nonprofit news organizations made up of reporters, editors and producers who debate coverage and vehemently disagree about what information to publish to best serve readers and viewers. Or what is appropriate journalistic behavior.

You could see that Tuesday by watching coverage of the claims about Trump. CNN was the first to decide to use the intelligence briefing as a news peg to publish its story. BuzzFeed doubled down, publishing in full the 35-page, unverified document behind the briefing. The Washington Post and The Associated Press summarized the claims but didn’t get into salacious detail. The New York Times summarized as well, with some specific detail, in a story The Bee published on 1A in print Wednesday. At sacbee.com, initial breaking news reports from McClatchy curated CNN, Trump’s response on Twitter, BuzzFeed’s explanation for publishing the document, and reaction on Twitter.

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Soon, “golden showers” was trending on Twitter because the most salacious of the allegations got people talking and tweeting. But in no time at all, the conversation changed from the news itself to second-guessing whether coverage was fair and responsible.

It’s fair game to question and call out journalistic decisions – healthy, even. It shows people are paying attention and care about the quality of reporting in this country. (My one caveat: We need to remember it’s also an effective political strategy to divert attention from the actual news.) The more powerful the media voice, the more it should be held accountable for its decisions. That includes The Bee.

We’re a publicly held regional newspaper covering California politics and the Sacramento region. As such we weren’t in the middle of this debate. Yet every editor debates news decisions and journalistic behavior regularly, sometimes hurriedly on deadline. Our decisions over time shape our coverage and, we realize, determine whether you find us credible. We have ethics policies and other resources to guide us, but few hard rules. Sometimes we wish we had a do-over.

Some decisions have substantial impact and we explain them, especially if they involve journalistic misconduct, which is thankfully rare. Some don’t rise to that level. For instance, on Monday morning the question was this: Is it OK for a journalist to “like” Meryl Streep’s speech at the Golden Globes, in which she called out for people to support the press – but also took on President-elect Donald Trump? That question is less complicated when you consider how politically charged Streep’s speech was. I understand the knee-jerk reaction to “like” any speech that encourages people to financially support journalists, but The Bee’s standards are clear on this: news journalists cannot take political positions on social media.

Last year marijuana was part of our political coverage. Once Californians voted to legalize recreational use in November, editors turned their attention to consumer stories on pot. Given that, was it appropriate for The Bee to report to readers in Home & Garden how best to grow the stuff?

Some readers told us no. And it’s been difficult for some editors – me included – to think of weed as just another plant. We’ve challenged ourselves about lifelong views and concluded it’s now legitimate fodder for our garden reporter. We’re also considering whether we need someone to critique various marijuana products, as we review the quality of wine and beer. Should we?

Many questions are thorny and recurring, such as this: How should we handle requests to take stories off our website? Most often such requests are tied to coverage of an arrest or charge that never ended up with a conviction. The request to remove a story and photograph this week came from a woman who lost her husband in a bicycling accident. She had agreed to an interview with The Bee at the 2015 Ride for Silence event that draws attention to bike safety, and didn’t like our photograph of her family. We believe news coverage is part of history. It is rare for us to remove coverage, especially of a public event, and we didn’t this week.

The worldwide reach of news online complicates newsroom decisions because some editing decisions are framed around community standards. That may best explain BuzzFeed’s decision to publish the unverified document when more venerable institutions did not – it’s a digital news upstart growing an audience with different expectations of standards. BuzzFeed’s values, editor Ben Smith said, are to be transparent and to share reporting with readers.

Our data show we have readers across the nation (and farther). But our name reflects our mission, to report on Sacramento and this city’s biggest political players, those governing California. We hear from you when you don’t like what we publish. That should continue.

Joyce Terhaar: 916-321-1004, @jterhaar