Reporter-columnists tread fine line with readers’ trust

Do you trust that articles by Herald reporters are free of bias?If so, would it affect your trust if they also write columns labeled “opinion?” Let’s say the columns stop short of backing candidates or policies, but do make personal observations about news figures and events — often written with an edge.

This is happening increasingly at The Miami Herald and other newspapers. Driving the trend, begun in the 1980s, is growing public demand for opinion, journalists pushing to give it, and budget-strapped editors happy to get “two-fors” when a reporter doubles as a columnist.

These aren’t opinion page columnists such as Leonard Pitts and Carl Hiaasen, or the “news columnists” such as Andres Oppenheimer and Fred Grimm.

I refer instead to Beth Reinhard in politics, Ana Veciana-Suarez in features and Linda Robertson, Israel Gutierrez and David J. Neal in sports, all of whom pull double duty as reporters and news columnists.

Executive Editor Anders Gyllenhaal strongly defends the practice as good for readers. “The kinds of columns reporters are writing are informational and analytical,” he told me. “The columns are meant to be straight-ahead, thoughtful views on a reporter’s topic.”

“There are things you can get across in a reported column that are different from a news story, which is basically a description,” he said. “The difference is particularly important in politics and sports, where there is a lot to say between the lines.”

It’s a good argument. I am not convinced, but what matters is what you think. If independent news companies are to survive the onslaught of the blogosphere, talk radio, cable television and other highly opinionated news media and remain free of outside interests, it will be because of your trust, the Herald’s most important asset.

Gyllenhaal said that he receives few complaints of the dual practice.

The implication is that you distinguish which mode a reporter is in and accept it, just as you accept the difference among news coverage, editorials and columnists. With little debate, the profession has come to believe that you will accept this next step, too, because the ethics of professional journalism is what assures that bias is removed from news stories.

But I wonder. I wrote some months ago about how the practice of putting the opinionated “news columnists” in the news pages is by itself confusing to many readers. In a cynical age of questioning motive, I wonder if the reporter-columnist practice, in a difficult-to-define way, is one more contribution to the decline in trust in newspapers.

Let’s look at Beth Reinhard’s work, for instance. As the Herald’s chief political writer, her position is the most sensitive of the reporter-columnists, which helps explain why I probably get more complaints about her than any other reporter. The most common accusation is that she favors Democrats.

Reinhard is a prodigious worker. In addition to articles and her weekly column, she Tweets almost daily and posts on Naked Politics, a Herald blog. I have reviewed everything she has written since the beginning of the year and find no partisan bias in any of it.

The complaints come mostly from readers who appear part of a vocal core on the right that is quick to criticize anything that doesn’t support their position. Reinhard is respected among professional political operatives in both parties.

But partisanship is not the only form of bias. See what you think about the following excerpts from her columns:

• “[Senate President Jeff] Atwater seems like a nice guy, but his career has pivoted on pushing people out of the way. His banking career, typically viewed as an asset, could be a liability in a year when voters are fed up with financial bailouts. No wonder he’s a born-again deficit hawk.”

• “Those who know the brash Democrat [former Hialeah Mayor Raul Martinez] wouldn’t put it past him to claim that he ran the Republican congressman out of his seat, even though [Lincoln] Diaz-Balart crushed him by 16 percentage points (Asked if he got any satisfaction out of Diaz-Balart’s departure, Martinez said in a curt e-mail: `None. I got over it the day after the election.’) A day? It would take at least two just to wipe off the mud.”

• “[Republican Congressman Mario] Diaz-Balart called it a `natural move’ and even tried to use the fact that he is the “only Broward native in the U.S. House of Representatives” to explain why he was abandoning his constituents for a district that includes a slice of Broward. If by “natural move” Mario Diaz-Balart means the basic instinct of self-preservation, then yes, it is very natural.”

• “If most politicians had their way, the Census would count heads the same way they’d like to count votes: early and often.”

Reinhard’s columns are insightful, pithy and fun to read. She may even be right. But to me, this is all beside the point. She clearly doesn’t seem to hold Atwater, Martinez and the Diaz-Balarts in very high regard, whatever their party, and her last comment, while humorous, can be taken as cynicism about all politicians.

The question then is: When you next read a regular article by her on the four politicians, will her expressed opinions affect your trust of that story? If not, then Gyllenhaal is correct and the practice of dual reporter-columnists serves you by using Reinhard’s great talent in two valuable ways.

I know that at least some readers are bothered, though I have no idea if they are representative. At least one reader was obviously confused by the dual roles:

“This is an op-ed, not a news article. How did this get past your editors?”

Reinhard, for her part, sees her service to readers as trumping all concerns. She told me: “I cover politics. I know how it works and want to tell readers that this is the way it is. I don’t see why I should hide what I know from readers. My personal feelings about a candidate or an issue do not come into play, ever. I can back up what I am saying with facts, research. . . . It’s not ideological, not personal for me. It’s about holding people accountable.”

Reinhard is not alone among star political reporters. Anthony Mann of the Sun Sentinel and Adam Smith of the St. Petersburg Times report and write columns.

Michael Putney, the political and governmental reporter for WPLG-Channel 10, writes op-ed columns every other week for the Herald.

A quick review of their work found it similar to Reinhard’s, though I am not sure how WPLG can countenance Putney in the Herald calling Greer “a self-promoting small-timer with extravagant tastes.” That’s raw and personal.

The long-running godfather of the dual political journalists is David Broder at the Washington Post. I used to be a stringer for him when I was a young reporter. Broder can be tough in raising questions but rarely gets personal with his subjects.

Inside the Herald but outside politics, Veciana-Suarez’s columns focus on social issues and are often service oriented. Robertson and Neal in sports seem mostly to focus on drama and color. An attempted funny column by Gutierrez on the Duke University basketball team recently underlines the danger of passing judgments. Scores of indignant readers saw the column as mean and offensive, which surely will affect how they read his future news stories.

None of this is to question the journalistic integrity of Reinhard or the others, or to say that reporters should not be analytical. Even regular stories should provide context and perspective, which is different from opinion.

Perhaps the drift into reporters writing opinion is part of a larger trend in which technology will make the Herald’s battle to remain interest-free irrelevant. By weakening the advertiser-supported business model for news, the Internet may be ushering in a return to the media being subsidized by political parties and others interested in imparting a point of view, as in the 19th century. But until that happens, the Herald and all news media need to think twice about what they are doing with your trust.

This column was originally published in The Miami Herald on April 25, 2010.

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