Winter 1999 - Spring 2000

1950: Backdoor Editorializing

What are the sound limits of ‘background’ reporting?

By John L. Hulteng
[This article originally appeared in the January 1950 issue of Nieman Reports.]

Are the interpretative reporters usurping on a wholesale scale one of the functions of the editorial page in American newspapers? And if they are, is that encroachment a good thing for our press and its readers?

In my book, the answers to the above are, respectively, yes and no.…

But I submit that neither the spot reporter nor the background reporter has any business dealing in opinions originating with himself. Without having made a thorough study of it, I contend on the basis of personal observation that many reporters in this field are failing to observe that distinction. It is that failure that threatens a further and broader breakdown of the traditional dividing line between news and editorial columns in American newspapers.

It is quite true that such a breakdown took place long ago, with the rise of the syndicated columnists and the development of the “informed sources” gimmick. But columnists are set apart and identified as part-time opinion peddlers. They speak for themselves and not for the paper. Background reporting now appears more and more frequently throughout the news columns, from page one, column eight to the business and finance sections way in back. It appears under standard heads, with or without staff bylines. It is represented as news reporting and should continue to be just that.

If Mr. Vishinksy makes a new statement about atomic energy, it is the proper function of the spot news reporter to get out the facts of his comment quickly and accurately. It is the proper function of the background reporter to fill in Vishinksy’s earlier stands on the same subject, and the stands of British and American spokesmen, to describe the circumstances under which the new Russian comment was made, and the current status of atomic control proposals at Lake Success. And—if the editors see no occasion for a policy piece on the subject—it is the proper function of the expository editorial writer to suggest what may have led to the Vishinsky statement, what purpose it may be intended to serve in current discussions, and what rejoinders it may bring from the Western powers. In such a presentation in depth each component should be in its place. It should never be necessary for the reader to filter fact from speculation in the “news” report.…

And I don’t believe I am blowing up a trivial technicality. Public confidence is a commodity too many papers are short on as it is—largely as a result of reader confusion in differentiating among news, columnists and “informed sources.” If we make it official policy to spice our whole news report with gobbets of opinion in the guise of background facts, we can’t expect reader trust to hold up. Certainly maintenance of that trust ought still to be a primary objective of the American press.

This is an editorial writer worrying about the tendency for “gobbets of opinion” to creep into interpretative reporting. John Hulteng is on a Nieman Fellowship from the editorial page of the Providence Journal.

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