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The Daily Tar Heel

Achieving Journalistic Excellence Worth Its Weight in Gold

How much would you be willing to pay for this issue of The Daily Tar Heel?

For many of you, it is the only newspaper you read on a daily basis. Some readers rely on the DTH for its coverage of campus news not found in any other medium. Others look forward to our commentary. And of course many, including myself, cannot live without the crossword.

Yet, how often are you critical, not to mention appreciative, of your primary source of local news and sports?

A true measure would be the amount you'd pay for an issue. I'd guess that most would give a quarter, but few would give more than two.

"Nobody thinks for a moment that he ought to pay for his newspaper," wrote Walter Lippmann 40 years ago. "He expects the fountains of truth to bubble, but he enters into no contract, legal or moral, involving any risk, cost or trouble to himself."

Most of you expect the DTH to provide you with the truth about campus news, yet are quick to dismiss it when we make mistakes. And rightfully so. We seek to publish a superb newspaper. And you are the ultimate judge. Yet, not through purchasing power.

The DTH is in a unique position of aspiring to achieve all the goals of a metropolitan newspaper - fairness, depth, accuracy and excellence - while at the same time, the staff is aware that readership rarely fluctuates. Regardless of what is printed, students and others in the University community will always pick up a free copy of the campus newspaper.

The DTH cannot measure itself according to the interests and concerns of the "buying public." The usual marker of subscriptions does not apply here. And the circulation, how many papers are printed and distributed, serves as the main marker only for advertisers, who also are aware that students will always pick up a free paper.

Thus, it is of even more importance that the DTH provide you with outstanding journalism. And just as critical that you provide us with feedback. Without the check of the "buying public," we are in danger of becoming stagnant, biased or careless. Thus, we must hold ourselves up to the standards we envision.

The first mission statement of The Daily Tar Heel is to put the paper to bed on time, every time. As is the case when most of you write a paper for class, as the deadline approaches, your output increases, as does your chance for errors.

Sometimes these errors are minor. A name is misspelled. A subject and verb don't agree. Other times, a reporter and/or editor doesn't take the necessary step back from the story to see if he or she truly understands the issue.

One recent example of the latter occurred when we ran an article explaining what role faculty members can take in supporting the bond referendum ("Faculty Must Keep Bond Talk Neutral"). Most of the article was based on an interview with Faculty Council Chairwoman Sue Estroff. Estroff made a distinction between what the faculty can say and do in their private lives and what they can do in the classroom, a line that was muddled by the DTH. That mistake, coupled with a misleading headline, caused concern among Estroff's colleagues and embarrassed her.

The issue of what faculty can say in the classroom is indeed a complex one. Estroff draws the line between what is legal and what is advisable. Biology instructors, for example, have every right to tell their classes they are pro-bond, but how is deep discussion of the issue directly related to the purpose of the class? In other words, wearing a button supporting the bond is different from putting aside the day's lecture to encourage bond support.

Perhaps Estroff put the problem best: "The headline sets an erroneous frame for the rest of the story. At no point did I use the word `neutral.' Nor did I make any statement about faculty `talk' in general. To headline a story with this erroneous generalization - that any bond talk must be neutral - represents a substantial misunderstanding by the editor and the reporters."

The headline was written by Matt Dees, the editor, who felt the headline was accurate, but conceded the wording was chosen because "it fit." And thus lies part of the problem with writing headlines, and stories in general: What is right often doesn't fit. In the rush to get the story out and make it fit, those goals we strive for - accuracy, depth, balance and excellence - begin to fall by the wayside.

These cases are rare, however. This year, Mr. Dees and his staff at The Daily Tar Heel have done an outstanding job of providing you with hot news and hotter commentary. From Kofi Bofah's fresh musings about himself to Craig Warner's disturbing rants, we have a more diverse group of columnists than ever.

Some of you may have noticed one major change this year: columnists on the third page. Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, Ashley Stephenson, Anne Fawcett and Erin Mendell, respectively, offer commentary on the issues in the news that affect you. This is different from the role of the columnists on the opinion page. Opinion-page columnists are free to write about whatever they like, and very rarely do they write about the news that's printed in the DTH.

Perhaps an even more important change has occurred online at dailytarheel.com. (Props to the kick-ass online staff.) Do yourself a favor and check it out sometime. The opportunity to provide us with that critical feedback I've mentioned is now simpler than ever online. If you're provoked, passionate or just interested in a news story or column, you can post a message about it and view the postings of other readers. The idea is simply to encourage discussion, elevating the level of education and awareness for everyone.

Now, lest you think I'm too much of a company man, I must offer some criticism regarding our election coverage: Where's Nader?

Tonight in Winston-Salem, the bi-partisan debate commission will offer you a debate between Bush and Gore. Imagine that: a bipartisan commission limiting the debate to two parties. I can only hope that the DTH will break ranks from the mainstream media and cover the protests outside. It doesn't have to be a two-party race. At least not in our paper.

That's the kind of critical reporting we should aspire to achieve.

To get the day's news and headlines in your inbox each morning, sign up for our email newsletters.

Now, how much would you pay for the crossword?

Reach ombudsman Brian Frederick at ombudsman@unc.edu or 933-4611.

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