Guest columnist Louis Capozzi, who teaches communications for the University of Oregon, takes The Bulletin to task today for exhibiting insufficient “balance in its reporting and analysis of Bend’s city government.” We are much more eager to point out Bend City Council’s missteps, he argues, than we are to praise the city’s good work, which “only further erodes the already sagging confidence voters have in government.”
The Bulletin, he concludes, “should be working with the government to build public confidence.”
There probably isn’t a newspaper in the country whose coverage escapes second-guessing, and that’s not a bad thing. Criticism can be beneficial, as it can highlight patterns, biases and errors that ought to be addressed. Readers sometimes see things we don’t. Even when we believe criticism is misplaced, it can provide an opportunity to explain why we do what we do.
And what we don’t do.
One thing we don’t do is set out to build public confidence in government. A worthwhile newspaper is not a public relations arm of its local school board, city council, county commission, state legislature and so on.
Neither, for that matter, does a worthwhile newspaper set out to erode confidence in government. Rather, it tries to keep readers informed about the workings of government, both through unbiased news coverage and inherently biased editorials.
We’re not perfect. We make mistakes, which we seek to correct promptly. And our editorials may be too harsh at times and not harsh enough at others. Having spent most of my 23-year newspaper career writing editorials, I’ve produced plenty of both types. Far more often than not, though, we get it right.
The relationship between news organizations and the governments they cover can be tense, to be sure. Reporters frequently seek information government agencies are reluctant to relinquish, leading to fights over public records. The end result of aggressive reporting sometimes reveals misbehavior or bad judgment by public officials, which surely does nothing to build public confidence. Meanwhile, editorial writers regularly disagree with policies sought by elected officials. In doing so, they may employ words like “wacky,” “ridiculous” and “frightening.”
The reason for aggressive reporting and opining? Government entities exercise great authority. They penalize certain kinds of behavior and incentivize others. They collect money from their constituents and spend it. They decide what people can do with their property and even their bodies.
If the end result of our reporting and editorializing is a loss in confidence in government, well, that’s what happens when government entities do things constituents dislike.
Among the editorials Capozzi mentions is one that faults Bend for requiring some people to build “sidewalks to nowhere” when they build accessory dwelling units, aka granny flats. The city supports the construction of granny flats as a way to increase Bend’s supply of affordable housing. Yet the city requires some homeowners to shell out thousands of dollars to build sidewalks even when adjoining properties have none, creating what are, in effect, sidewalks to nowhere.
We reported about the costly sidewalk requirement in November after learning about affected property owners. We editorialized shortly thereafter with the intention of nudging the city to revisit policies that seem counterproductive. Our readers’ confidence in city government may be marginally higher now if we’d ignored the problem or declined to suggest that the city fix it. But newspapers serve their readers better by prodding government to do things that earn the confidence of their constituents.
Capozzi also takes issue with the location of a recent story about the top ranking given to the Bend area by the Milken Institute, a prominent economic think tank. This piece of good news is “buried in section D while the front page is dominated with the story of a snowstorm,” he writes. “‘Snow job’ would be a better description.”
We’ve “buried” this story on the front of our Business section, Capozzi suggests, because it casts government activity in a good light. He points to the Milken report’s reference to the OSU-Cascades campus as a potential engine for economic growth and concludes, “Not a bad performance for such a blundering city government!”
The location and prominence of stories do reflect the exercise of editorial judgment, and a different group of editors might have decided to play this story differently. Fair enough. Notwithstanding Capozzi’s narrative, however, The Bulletin has been one of the campus’ most enthusiastic supporters for well over a decade. On the Sunday prior to the campus’ opening in September, in fact, we even “buried” our enthusiasm in a 10-page special section teased prominently from the front page.
— Erik Lukens is editor of The Bulletin.