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About fairness in coverage of the State Senate campaign

Michael JonasDorchester, like many Boston neighborhoods, is blessed with an abundance of civic energy, a level of activism and engagement in community issues that accrues nearly all to the neighborhood’s benefit. Can there to be too much of a good thing? I don’t think so. But that question is, in a sense, what has me writing this column as the Reporter’s temporary ombudsman.

The Reporter, owned by the Forry family and celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, has become a vital anchor of the Dorchester community, a trusted source of information and thoughtful commentary on life in Boston’s largest neighborhood. Meanwhile, since 2005, Linda Dorcena Forry, the wife of Reporter publisher and editor Bill Forry, has served as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Given the critical role of the press in holding powerful individuals and institutions accountable for their actions, the questions this situation raises seem self-evident.

Linda Forry’s original campaign for state representative presented a quandary for the newspaper. How do you cover a political contest in which a member of the newspaper owners’ family is a candidate? The answer, concluded the Forrys: very carefully and by doing as much as you can to ensure the fairness of your coverage.

That included hiring a temporary ombudsman to review the paper’s coverage of the state representative race. Fast forward eight years and state Rep. Forry, a fifth-term Democrat, has now thrown her hat in the ring for the state Senate seat recently vacated by Jack Hart.

Bill Forry reached out and asked me to take on the role of ombudsman during the course of the special election campaign. From now through the primary on April 28 and the general election on May 30, I will serve in that role.

An ombudsman is the readers’ representative, an independent voice brought on board by the newspaper but answerable to the public. My job will be to keep an eye on all aspects of the Reporter’s treatment of the special election. I will have no supervisory role over any staff at the paper or any say in any coverage decisions. What I have been promised is space in the newspaper in which to share my unfiltered views on how the Reporter is doing at living up to its pledge to provide fair and unbiased coverage of the race.

The paper has taken several steps to try to ensure that fairness, which were outlined in the Feb. 7 issue. Neither Bill Forry nor his father, Ed, who founded the Reporter and now serves as associate publisher, will have any involvement in coverage of the Senate race. Primary responsibility for campaign coverage will rest with Gin Dumcius, the news editor. His work, in turn, will be overseen by Associate Editor Tom Mulvoy, who earned a few newsroom supervisory stripes as the longtime managing editor of the Boston Globe.

“I don’t know the content, won’t know it, and neither will Ed, until the paper is out the door,” Bill Forry told me last week, when I met with him, his father, Dumcius, and Mulvoy at the Reporter’s offices.

My job is to hold the paper accountable for its vow of unbiased, fair coverage of the race. I am also here to weigh and give voice to any concerns or complaints about the Reporter’s coverage from readers, including candidates in the Senate race or their campaigns. Please feel free to contact me by email at dotnewsobudsman@gmail.com or by phone at 617-224-1624.

Fairness and accuracy are the twin pillars that a newspaper’s reporting must rest on. Balance is often said to be a third key element, but it’s not always easy to define. It doesn’t mean, in my view, blind devotion to some rigid accounting system in which all sides or all arguments on a topic must always be represented in exactly equal measure. Reporters are not stenographers. They are called on to exercise judgment in gathering information, synthesize complicated issues and events, and try to make sense of it all for readers.

In 2003, Daniel Okrent was brought on as The New York Times’s first “public editor,” the term the paper employs for its ombudsman. In what has come to be known in journalism circles as “Okrent’s law,” he offered a thoughtful perspective on the issue of balance. “The pursuit of balance can create imbalance,” said Okrent, “because sometimes something is true.” He didn’t mean that reporters shouldn’t always pursue fair coverage. What he meant was, in bowing to demands to always treat all viewpoints or organizations equally, even those on the fringe or with little credibility, journalists can themselves contribute to the presentation of a distorted picture by failing to exercise the judgment that is part of their job.

What does that mean in terms of the Senate race? What sort of “something” just might be true and merit reporting? If one candidate is gaining more traction than others with endorsements from groups that can play a key role in a late winter special election, such a development certainly would appear to be newsworthy, even if it suggests that candidate may be gaining advantage in the race. Last week’s Reporter had word that a Republican had taken out nomination papers for the race. If he qualifies for the ballot, he certainly will merit coverage, but so, too, might the fact of the overwhelmingly Democratic tilt of the electorate in the First Suffolk Senate district, which includes South Boston, most of Dorchester, Mattapan, and Hyde Park.

Along with bringing readers important facts, exercising judgment to put those facts in context is part of a newspaper’s job. It makes things harder, not easier, on a paper, especially one in the unusual situation the Reporter is in as the race for state Senate gets underway. I’ll do my best to see that it rises to the challenge.

Michael Jonas is executive editor of CommonWealth magazine, published by the nonpartisan Boston public policy think tank MassINC.