Walt Amses made some enemies this year — he, and a few other regular writers to these pages. They let it be known, in no uncertain verbosity, they were not fans of President Trump. They drew plenty of ire in the form of commentaries and letters to the editor in response.
There were plenty of other instances — on varying topics, whether it was raising the Black Lives Matter flag in a public place; a plan to rename a longtime team mascot; consolidating the Vermont College System; or really anything to do with either the U.S. Supreme Court or the recent presidential election — where the back-and-forth was, shall we say, “lively.”
With regularity, there are a handful of individuals — readers, all — who reach out publicly and privately to chastise the newspaper for what is characterized as a perceived bias.
There are several misconceptions here.
First, news is supposed to be objective. That means that reporters — whether it is the staff members from our own newsrooms, or the regular writers for the syndicate The Associated Press (of which this paper is a member) — are presenting facts on a specific topic. If done well, the articles present attributed (backed by vetted individuals) facts in a narrative that contains multiple sources voicing a range of perspectives on the issue at hand. It is that vetting of information that distinguishes an article from a commentary or letter to the editor.
Second, opinion pieces — letters and op-eds — get their own page inside the paper. They should never share space with news stories. (The Manchester Union Leader famously publishes front-page editorials, but they are clearly marked as such.) So when someone calls us to tell us that they felt “that article in the paper about (topic) was biased,” they often are not distinguishing between a news story and an opinion piece on the editorial page.
Third, the editorial is anchored on the editorial page. Its font is slightly different (bigger) and it is almost always about 750 words in length. Often it is about a statewide or local issue, but sometimes there are “guest” editorials in the space. In either case, the content in that anchored spot is “the voice of the paper.” That means that the editorial board of the paper supports the position that is being presented.
If the editorial writer is doing their job well, they are doing one of three things: raising awareness; criticizing those in positions of power; or putting forth an idea that moves forward the discussion of topic worthy of dialogue. There is usually a dominant position, and if well-argued, a nod to a minority position. If abused, it can feel like a soap box or a bully pulpit, but if used with care and mindfulness, a well-reasoned editorial can be the first steps toward change, whether it is policy, law or attitude.
But by virtue of the fact that a newspaper is published — in black and white — means that what is covered is judged and scrutinized (and aptly so) with a most critical eye. It is sometimes easy, given the topics in play in any given news cycle, to suggest any newspaper is leaning in one direction or another.
Let’s look at a recent example: COVID-19 in Vermont. It is mandatory for one of the reporters on our staff to sit through the governor’s semi-weekly news conferences in order to report to readers in both the greater Rutland and greater Barre-Montpelier areas what was said, discussed and presented. Some readers say that the reporters do not go far enough in pushing the Scott administration for details on outbreaks, or that we should publish daily reports on where COVID cases are being reported, and break it down by demographics (sex, race, age). Other readers feel our regular coverage of those news conferences is a deliberate attempt to scare our audience into compliance to a) wear masks and b) keep them from frequenting stores and restaurants — in other words, spending money in the local economy. The truth is, we report on COVID because it is information we all need to make educated decisions about our day and our life right now. And a citizen armed with information is best suited to make the best decision for themselves. Does that mean on the editorial page this paper has encouraged mask-wearing? We have. But at the same time, we are encouraging shopping local, keeping the local economy in motion, and contributing to normalcy in whatever way is possible. Both the news and the opinion are representative of the community.
There are issues — climate change, marijuana legalization, Act 46, Act 250, taxation reform, deregulation — that come up in our coverage because these are issues being debated by our lawmakers, the administration and public policy makers. Covering those issues does not mean we are biased. It means we are presenting issues.
And the glory of it is: If one of those issues gets you riled, you have a place to voice your opinion.
For those voices, in these contentious times, we are grateful. We all learn from one another’s perspective. As it should be.