A glimpse of what goes on these pages
Editor’s Notebook, By Jim Scripps
Sometimes those of us in the news business need to be reminded what our purpose is; to reevaluate how we approach our work, considering our customers, the readers.
This week a thought occurred to me. While we are generally good at debating within our offices how different subject matter should be approached editorially, we are sometimes bad at explaining why we do the things we do, and what goes into the final product.
Our lack of communication on this subject became apparent through two separate communications I received from readers, both upset with content they read or viewed on our Opinion/Letters pages.
While nearly every newspaper approaches this section with a similar philosophy, let me explain how we do it at the Sierra Sun, and maybe it will answer some of the questions people have about our “positions” or our desire to seek “balance” between expressed opinions.
The Opinion/Letters pages are just about the only place in the Sierra Sun where personal and institutional opinions are allowed to exist. The exception would be the occasional column that appears on our news, business and lifestyle pages.
Of the two communications (one was a letter to the editor, the other a personal e-mail to me), one author was upset with the opinions of Prentiss Davis, a Truckee resident who periodically writes in our pages. The other was upset with Käri J. Cashen’s cartoon that poked fun at tourist drivers.
Most of the time, the Opinion/Letters pages at the Sierra Sun contain four elements: Editorial(s), column(s), a cartoon and letters. Each has its own purpose in speaking to the community, but all are meant to contain opinions, opinions that everyone may not share.
The editorial is the institutional opinion of the newspaper. When we write an editorial, we try to state our interpretation of an issue, explain the evidence for our stated position, and offer the alternative point of view. We try not to be vague, or apologetic when we state our opinion, we just put it out there for readers to agree or disagree with. Because we do not have a formal editorial board as some larger newspapers do, the opinions are generally crafted by one or a handful of the staff members of the Sierra Sun. These opinions do not affect how we approach news stories on the same topics, where we try to give equal weight to all sides of a story. Sometimes we run editorials from other newspapers. In those cases, we attribute the editorial to its source with a note at the bottom.
Over the past few years the Sun has had several staff cartoonists. Right now we have one, Käri J. Cashen.
Cartoons can run the gamut from pure humor to satire. A good cartoonist can combine both. The opinions expressed in cartoons may or may not be expressions of the opinions of the cartoonists Ð they may be farcical, or oversimplified caricatures of a public figures or public debates. It all depends on the cartoonist’s style. Overall, I would say the Sierra Sun has had a long line of gifted cartoonists who apply thought to their craft. Good cartoons poke fun without being mean, they express social commentary without turning too many people off. If you see one of our cartoons that pokes fun at the police department hanging on the police department wall, you know they get it Ð the police department gets it and the cartoonist gets it. When the moment calls for it, though, cartoons can be serious. After Sept. 11, for example, we saw expressions of heartfelt grief from cartoonists throughout the country. It all depends on the situation, and the artistic intentions of the cartoonist.
Letters allow individual members of the public to interact with their community. Readers’ favorite letters are the ones that speak to something in the public discourse, perhaps a large issue like development or education, or something more personal, like a call to action to help a family in need. Sometimes letter writers are responding to something we have written, positively or negatively. As we see it, the Sierra Sun is a bulletin board for the community, the vehicle through which debates are shaped and rectified. Sunshine letters, the Sierra Sun’s version of thank you letters, give individuals and groups the opportunity to publicly recognize good deeds.
Letters are also the place where readers can respond to opinions they see as objectionable. We generally try to discourage name-calling for what might amount to a simple intellectual disagreement, but that is not to say emotion does not have a place on the letters pages. When it comes to the community’s opinions, anything goes, unless it is in bad taste or legally questionable. And don’t think your letter does not get read Ð this might be the most-read section of the paper in a town where just about everyone reads the paper.
While we strive to provide balance in the variety of opinions that appear on these pages, we are limited to those writers who participate. If someone objects to an opinion expressed by columnist Jim Porter, for example, I would ask them to provide readers with an alternative. We are happy to print it. More important than balance, though, is access. We provide these pages (with no advertising), so community members have a place to express themselves. It’s part of our mission to serve the community, and it’s a part of what makes the newspaper an important part of local life.
Jim Scripps is editor of the Sierra Sun. If you object to anything in this column, he can be reached at email@example.com.
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