Monday, February 22, 2010

A Thin, Blurry Ethical Line

Posted By on Mon, Feb 22, 2010 at 7:44 PM

One of the main tenets of journalistic ethics is that while a newspaper is free to express opinions on politics in its editorials, it shouldn’t let its political agenda drive its news coverage. There’s supposed to be a firm, clear line between the editorial page and the news columns.

At Bend’s Only Daily Newspaper, that line sometimes gets awfully blurry.

On Sunday, The Bulletin carried a story in the top position on the front page headlined: “Stiegler’s tax votes factor into House race.” The story described how Jason Conger, a Republican challenging Democratic Rep. Judy Stiegler of Bend for re-election, plans to make an issue of her support for the Measure 66 and 67 tax increases.

The story pointed out that Stiegler’s home district voted against both measures, although the margins of defeat were not overwhelming: about 6% for Measure 66 and 7% for 67.

It’s not exactly news that Stiegler supported the tax measures, nor is it surprising that a Republican would attack a Democrat as a “tax-and-spend liberal.” Based on news value, the story hardly seemed worthy of leading the front page – and on Sunday, the highest-circulation day of the week.

I wasn’t the only one who thought there was something not quite kosher about the story and its play. “I thought the front page article on Judy Stiegler was pretty blatantly politically slanted against her,” wrote local blogger Duncan McGeary. “Both in context and where it was placed. Seemed like an ad for her opponent.”

This isn’t the first time The Bulletin’s political position has appeared to color its news coverage. Remember how hard the paper tried to make a huge issue out of state Sen. Betsy Johnson’s supposed “conflict of interest” during the battle over legislation to protect the Metolius River from destination resorts?

Coincidentally – or not – the lead editorial on the same day that the front-page Stiegler story ran was headlined “Stiegler’s district needs a centrist” and raised the same point about her supporting tax measures that a majority of voters in her district rejected. “Is she politically out of step with her constituents?” the editorial asked.

I’ll give you one guess as to how The Bulletin will answer that question as we move into campaign season.

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