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Chief William Blair speaks to the media regarding an incident in which police shot and killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC street car in Toronto, Ontario Monday, July 29, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Chief William Blair speaks to the media regarding an incident in which police shot and killed 18-year-old Sammy Yatim on a TTC street car in Toronto, Ontario Monday, July 29, 2013. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

Public Editor: Just the facts … plus Add to ...

I occasionally hear from readers who are concerned that journalists are veering more toward commentary than old-fashioned, just-the-facts reporting.

For example, a recent news piece covered Toronto Police Chief Bill Blair’s comments after the shooting of Sammy Yatim, including a line suggesting that the chief was facing a “crisis of public confidence.”

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To me, that’s a fair observation by the writer, analytical rather than personal opinion, but it raises a great issue.

Because of social media (where everyone has an opinion) and the explosion of online news tips and briefs (where many know the basic facts), the role of reporters is evolving. Their challenge is to help readers better understand what is happening – but also to add value by explaining why. That means using critical thinking skills and observation. And tapping the experience and knowledge they have gained covering a subject or a place.

Where does objectivity fit in, then? Jeffrey Dvorkin, a journalism professor at the University of Toronto (Scarborough), says that for many reporters, the “worst fear is being accused of bias.” But sometimes they can go too far trying to prove their distance from a story. “In the process, we have lost our ability to both bear witness and to draw reasonable conclusions,” he says. The way forward, he believes, is to keep reporting, but also to build on that to analyze events.

I agree. Great journalism demands more thinking – as well as the bravery to stand behind earned expertise and insight. There is, however, a difference between analysis and commentary. Analysis is based on either past or current reporting. It is fair and balanced, explanatory rather than opinionated. Comment is generally from a strong point of view, a sort of one-sided argument.

“Everyone can have a soapbox, but analysis requires marshalling of the evidence,” says Christopher Waddell, the chair of Carleton University’s journalism program. “The people writing analysis need to have some credibility and experience and not everybody can do it.”

Credibility is key. A recent complaint came from HonestReporting Canada, an advocacy group whose mission is to “ensure Israel is represented fairly and accurately.” It had several complaints about the wording in an online column by global affairs writer Patrick Martin. The article, “Have the European Union’s sanctions made Israel jump,” quotes a number of key Israeli officials discussing the EU’s initiative to forbid member states from “engaging in any funding, co-operation, awarding of scholarships (etc.) to anyone residing in a Jewish settlement in territory captured by Israel in the 1967 Six-Day War.” “For once,” Mr. Martin concluded, “Europe is putting its money where its mouth is.”

HonestReporting asked: “At what point does ‘analysis’ stray into ‘personal opinion’? Some argue that it’s an area of grey, but what’s pretty clear is that a reporter’s statements must be grounded in facts.”

This is true. Mr. Martin says he was providing “an observation that Europe was putting its economic policy where its political statements were – not encouraging the EU to do this, nor applauding them, merely drawing a conclusion about the facts.”

But I also believe that analysis needs to be clearly labelled and transparent to readers. I have sometimes complained to Globe editors about front-page stories not carrying clear tags indicating that they are something other than straight reporting. Mr. Martin’s piece was posted on the Commentary section of The Globe’s website, and includes his headshot, usually a signal that material will include analysis or opinion. The only problem: If you came to his article through a search or mobile, you may not have seen some of these signposts. There should be better clues to readers, perhaps by putting the word “analysis” into headlines.

However you come to Mr. Martin’s piece, though, he is well qualified to offer analysis based on his experience. He spent two four-year terms in the Middle East as a correspondent (in 1991 and 2008) and has also been foreign editor and comment editor.

HonestReporting argues that if Mr. Martin wants to “shape public opinion, he should become a pundit.” If that means he should continue to use his background and knowledge to explain Middle East politics to Globe readers, yes, that’s true.

Follow on Twitter: @SylviaStead

 

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