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Public editor: Should we describe Hugo Chavez as a dictator?

Venezuela's President Hugo Chavez addresses the audience as he visits Peoples' Friendship University of Russia in Moscow September 9, 2009.

Denis Sinyakov / Reuters/REUTERS

A reader wrote this morning objecting to the newspaper's lead news story about the death of Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez, described in the first paragraph as a dictator.

"I expect the G&M to choose its words very carefully when it comes to reporting. Opinion should be confined to clearly marked pieces and pages," the reader said.

Was Chavez a dictator? He was democratically elected three times, most recently in October of last year. But he was seen as autocratic and authoritarian and he jailed opposition leaders.

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Whether he was dictatorial is a good subject for debate. In fact, columnist Doug Saunders argues today that he was not a dictator. The Globe's editorial likewise does not use the term to describe him.

I agree with the reader that the description is an opinion rather than a fact. The article could have described him as an autocratic leader or stated that he was described as a dictator by his foes or even that he was dictatorial. There is lots of room to describe the man and his politics and give more than just the dry facts. And good journalism requires that reporters share their knowledge and expertise with the readers. But in this case, I agree that the statement was too bald and more debatable than factual. Although I do not agree with the term, I believe this is a topic for discussion in the comments and the letters page as opposed to a correction, as it is a matter of opinion.

What are your thoughts on the balance between giving colour and background to a story versus opinion writing? Where is that line? Please comment below or send me an email at publiceditor@globeandmail.com

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