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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, September 8, 2005

We put truth in first place

"During the act of knowledge itself, the objective and subjective are so instantly united that we cannot determine to which of the two the priority belongs."

— Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 1817, Biographia Literaria

The Enterprise, like any good newspaper, strives for objectivity in its reporting of news.

Newspapers in our country have changed greatly from the days of the American Revolution when the views of those who published them were inherent in the way news was told.

But news gathering and reporting is a human function. News is not handed down from on high. Reporters and editors struggle every day to find what is important to cover and they must decide how it is covered, too.

"Responsible journalism," said Walter Lippmann when he addressed the International Press Institute Assembly in London in 1965, "is journalism responsible in the last analysis to the editor’s own conviction of what, whether interesting or only important, is in the public interest."

As the editor of a small community weekly, I find the choices are wide and varied. Our pages aren’t often dominated by must-run world events. We pick and choose among the events and people often ignored by other media to write news of local public interest.

When I started writing as a young reporter 30 years ago, I had a rather naive and pure idea of objectivity. I thought the best reporter would be one without any prejudice, one who could serve as a vessel to transmit fairly the news around her.

I wouldn’t enroll in a political party; I even quit organizations as benign as the local PTA. How far should this go" Elizabeth Drew, covering national politics for The New Yorker, famously declared she wouldn’t vote in the Presidential elections so as to maintain her objectivity.

As the years went by, I began to realize no single person can be completely objective. Each of us, no matter who we are, has certain viewpoints, certain ways of seeing and understanding the world — perhaps because of our gender, our race, our religion, or perhaps because of the books we have read or the place where we live. By pretending otherwise, a reporter is not only denying her humanity but actually doing a disservice to her readers.

We at The Enterprise still strive for objectivity in our news stories — now, more than ever. In an era when some mediums have given up on the ideals of balance and fairness in reporting, we do everything in our power to achieve these. But the way we arrive there is by knowing our prejudices and making a conscious effort to balance them.

If I’m aware, for example, that I feel a certain revulsion towards a convicted sex offender, I will bend every effort to be fair, to talk to the offender, to talk to his friends, to try to understand what it is he is going through, too.

In the end, this results in a better, more balanced story. It gets closer to the truth.

"As the free press develops," Lippmann said in that London address 40 years ago, "the paramount point is whether the journalist, like the scientist or scholar, puts truth in the first place or in the second."

Certainly, we draw some lines. Hypothetically, we wouldn’t have a reporter who owned a bagel shop write a review of the best bagels in town. But, where there is no direct overlap, we allow our reporters leeway.

I’m sharing this perspective because of an unusual decision we recently made. We think it’s only fair to let you, our readers, know about it.

For over a year now, we’ve had a very good reporter, Bill Sherman, covering the villages of Voorheesville and Altamont for The Enterprise. It’s a part-time job for Sherman, who also works in Albany, for the State Assembly, and lives in Rotterdam, where he and his wife are raising three young daughters.

Sherman loves reporting and has worked the Enterprise beats into his busy life. His politics and personal life haven’t slanted his stories; he’s gone the extra distance to make them fair and balanced.

Sherman recently decided to run for the Schenectady County Legislature on the Republican ticket. The usual reaction from a newspaper would be that is the end of a reporting career. Instead, the Enterprise publisher, Jim Gardner; Sherman; and I talked about it. Since our newspaper covers towns in Albany but not neighboring Schenectady County, and since the politics in Altamont and Voorheesville don’t overlap those of Schenectady County, we’ve decided to give this a go.

Sherman is staying on his beat and we’ll be wary, as will he, of any conflicts. His judgment is sound, his writing is fair, and his latest undertaking may add another level of inquiry and understanding to his reporting.

"It is the dull man who is always sure," H.L. Mencken wrote in Prejudices, "and the sure man who is always dull."

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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