Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Are News Articles and Editorials Really Separate?

Yesterday, the Wisconsin State Journal announced in a front page, above the fold headline that recently convicted legislators may be able to collect the pensions that they had accrued during years of service. Today, in the most predictable editorial ever, the State Journal makes the shocking claim that they oppose these legislators being able to collect their pensions, something that was inherently clear given the story the day before.

Set aside, for a moment, the likely unconstitutionality of yanking these pensions away from the elected officials, regardless of how little they actually deserve them. Does the State Journal really want to set the precedent of pulling away benefits from workers who they believe don't deserve them, but have rightfully earned them over years of service? If a State Journal editor signed up for a job with a retirement benefit agreement in place, then worked for 20 years before being caught soliciting minors on the internet, would they think it was fair to have to give back 20 years of benefits? I doubt it.

What is noticeable about this editorial, however, is how often a paper will do some "investigative" journalism that is supposed to get a reader to think a certain way about an issue, then immediately follow up that story with an editorial that perfectly echoes the sentiment of the preceding article. In fact, in some cases, you have to wonder whether the editorial was actually written first, and they needed the story to give their opinion some cover.

For example:

On March 21st of 2006, Steve Walters of the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel wrote an article informing readers that the legal bills of the convicted legislators would be paid for with tax money (something that had been known for about four years.) On March 22nd, an editorial appeared in the Journal Sentinel denouncing the practice of paying legal bills with tax money.

On April 13th of 2006, Patrick Marley of the Journal Sentinel wrote an article critical of legislators for exploiting a 30 year old law that allows them to toss their records when they leave office. On April 17th, the editorial board printed an editorial supporting the view that you were supposed to get from Marley's article that something untoward was afoot. In fact, the Wisconsin State Journal even jumped in the fray, criticizing the law and the legislators. Perhaps their vitriol is merely embarrassment for being the official state newspaper and clearly not knowing this law existed for 30 years.

On December 26th of 2005, the Journal Sentinel printed a story about State Senators voting by what are known as "paper ballots." Despite this being a virtually uncontested practice for 30 years, the article was clearly trying to get the reader to think this was some sinister plot to keep votes away from the public (despite the results of the voting being public record). Sure enough, on December 28th, the Journal Sentinel editorial board denounced this practice of "secret" voting.

Of course, editorial boards can feel free to editorialize about anything they want. But in these cases, and many, many, more, their editorials are clearly companion pieces to their supposedly neutral news articles. It lends the appearance that many times, they have made up their mind on certain practices or stories before the news is even written.

It's not even as if some of the things for which they advocate are even bad ideas. But it's pretty clear that they are advocating in their news articles, then using their editorials to drive their point home. Maybe their reporters appreciate getting backup from their editorial boards. Maybe they try to keep the story alive for a couple more days with an editorial. But this happens time after time after time, which leaves many readers wondering whether there truly is a bright line between the news and editorial departments. An editorial board shaping the content of the news department would certainly run counter to the mission of any legitimate newspaper.