Sunday, April 1, 2012

Dear John Smalley, Editor, Wisconsin State Journal

Wisconsin State Journal
Sunday, April 1, 2012
John Smalley, Editor

Why our journalists can’t sign petitions

The mission of the news pages — and the journalists who work on them — is to present fair, accurate and unbiased information, specifically devoid of our opinion.

April fools?

Dear Mr. Smalley,

I hope you are sincere when you say that your newspaper ought to maintain an objective position everywhere but in opinion columns and on the editorial page. Kudos for believing this is the way things ought to be.

Unfortunately, this isn't the way things actually are.

The Wisconsin State Journal does what most, if not all news outlets do: it self-censors and reports in a way that shapes public opinion to conform with the paper's opinions.

Two or three years ago I talked with National Public Radio Ombudswoman, Alicia Shepard after getting tired of listening to Wisconsin Public Radio's blather about their uncensored coverage of stories you simply wouldn't hear anywhere else. I spoke to her about this false claim.

Problems and scandals involving the University of Wisconsin, Madison are rarely reported on by Wisconsin Public Radio, particularly so when the problems and scandals involve the use of animals in the university's labs. Ms. Shepard commiserated with me and lamented the fact that local public radio stations affiliated with universities commonly self-censor bad news about their host universities. She didn't have any idea how the problem could be fixed.

The Wisconsin State Journal has the same problem, and whether the self-censorship is recognized by the editorial board or not is a question that would be hard to answer by the paper's readers since your editorial meetings aren't subject to the same transparency as are government meetings.

But the absence of coverage of the problems and the glut of stories that appear to be positive propaganda, sometimes lifted almost verbatim from UW's own press releases, make it a little difficult to believe that at least some of the paper's staff aren't somewhat aware of the spin on the goings-on at the university.

It's not just WPR and the Wisconsin State Journal of course; I don't know of any local media outlets that don't jump on opportunities to praise the university and then shy away from the less savory stories. Not always, but usually. Even you colleagues at the left-leaning Cap Times have this problem, and I've written to them about it. Here's a letter to the editor:
Rick Bogle: UW stories left out bad news related to animals

January 11, 2012

Dear Editor: Two articles in the Jan. 4-10 Cap Times were noteworthy because of the similar topic of their omissions.

The first, “A brighter year ahead,” looked back on UW-Madison’s past year but made no mention of the university’s successful lobbying of lawmakers to exempt its staff from Wisconsin’s crimes against animals statutes. The exemption was slipped into the controversial budget bill without opportunity for public comment after researchers were caught violating the law by killing animals by means of decompression and by staging fights between animals.

The second article, a retrospective look at the retiring UW-Madison library director’s tenure, made no mention of the library’s role in or silence about the 2005 shredding of a cataloged 628-piece collection of 15 years of video records from the UW Primate Center, after it refused to provide a copy of one record that was requested as part of a public records request. The mission of the UW Library System’s June Northrop Barker Archives is to solicit, collect, organize, describe, preserve and provide access to the research and historical documents related to the field of primatology.
The list of problems and controversies involving animals at the university that have been left unreported or unremarked upon by the Wisconsin State Journal is long.

This selective coverage harms the public.

The harm is the false and uninformed opinions held by people who get their news primarily from local media. Local media has a compelling responsibility to cover important local news, and it is reasonable for local readers to believe that the important stories are covered by them -- fairly. Readers of the Wisconsin State Journals are unlikely to be conversant with or to have heard about the problems involving animals at the university. Their ignorance is the fault of local media.

If a paper opts to ignore a problem, that is, the paper self-censor, the public remains uninformed, is left with false impressions, or worse, is misled. This is particularly so when nearly all the "news" is "good" news.

Mr. Smalley, I hope your editorial will motivate you to look more critically at your paper's coverage of these matters and to work to meet the ideals you spelled out in your editorial.


Rick Bogle

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