Monday, April 12, 2010

Contrast in governments' accessibility

Working for the city section of The Daily Tar Heel, I've talked to a lot of local politicians.

In writing daily stories, I'm frequently on deadline, and only rarely do I need one specific council member as a source. So I'll place calls in the morning, and by afternoon I've usually had at least one person call me back.

I'm doing a project for my Citizens and Media class where I'm researching the Greensboro government and the local media's coverage of it. It was my job to speak to community officials and find out their opinions on the local media.

I called the only number available on the Greensboro's city council Web site, asked to be connected to the mayor, and was directed to his e-mail. Each to speak to the city council members led to the same result.

It's been several weeks since these nine attempts, and I've received two replies.

One from the mayor, William Knight, only to tell me that he would not be speaking to me, and only one reply from one council member who was willing to talk to me.

Quite frankly, I'm appalled by the inaccessibility and lack of transparency in the city's government. For seven members of their council to ignore me completely and the mayor to decline just shows a complete disconnect from listening to people.

What? Are they afraid I'm going to expose some big secret of theirs? Afraid my questions will be too probing? I explained the purposes and intentions of the project in the e-mail. I think it was pretty clear what I was looking for.

This makes me appreciate the government of Chapel Hill so much more. Members are always willing to speak with me and always call me back. I really feel like I know what's going on with local government and members usually try their best to make government accessible.

In my experience, people who are used to talking to media personnel are less afraid to talk to me and will more frequently call me back much sooner than those we are not. When I call the mayor, he'll speak with me. When I called Orange County Social Services for a story last semester repeatedly over the course of a week, no one ever called me back.

Councils should know how to talk to media. It's a necessary part of an informed citizenry. How are the media supposed to effectively report on government actions if they cannot speak to the government?

Granted, they may have given me more attention if I were calling from a more official news source rather than as a student. But the fact that they would deny me from learning more about their city and their government is enforcing the same principle.

Sunday, April 4, 2010

Say anything (else)

I'm not really supposed to have opinions on things.

This bothers a lot of people. I mean, obviously, I have them. I'll share them in a one-on-one setting probably, but I really shouldn't be a member of the UNC Young Democrats or the College Republicans. To be in those organizations doesn't technically violate the conflict of interest policy of The Daily Tar Heel, but a conflict is present, especially when I'm covering local politics.

The other day, a friend of mine posted on my Facebook wall asking me what my opinion was on the DTH's stance on gender-neutral language. I do have a definite opinion, but I had to ignore her question. Student election season, I can't support a candidate who I truly believe could do the school well. I can't protest something I think is wrong and I can't sign just about any petition.

Journalists don't make news, they report on it.

But all these rules, all these restrictions which limit our political participation--what are they're actually doing? It's clear that they make us appear less biased as a paper. But all that does is limit an appearance. The biases of each individual are still there. And we can try, try, try in editing and writing to make our stories as neutral as possible. But bias is impossible to eliminate 100 percent.

I could join a student political organization if I really wanted to, but all I could really do is buy a T-shirt. I couldn't participate in most activities. So I've never joined any of them.

I was speaking to a friend about this the other day, and he asked me what was the point of all that. He said all these rules do is hide the bias from the readers; but, if the readers knew the bias of the writer, couldn't that help them be more informed when reading the article?

This question is especially pertinent in today's age of political blogs. Everyone disregards them because they're biased. But if we know the bias of them going into reading them, and we read a variety of viewpoints, we could disregard the stuff that is clearly a product of pure bias and become informed on issues from all viewpoints.

But it's a complicated question. Maybe on some things, reporters don't know their own bias. I've always felt like I don't really have a political leaning that's clearly right or left. To label myself as having a single political stance could be totally misleading.

So journalists do their best to present an issue and interview those who are on the winning and losing sides, the positives and the negatives. Biases may interfere.

While political, opinion blogs are good for some things, a news source with no blatant bias is still extremely important. Sure, we can't really eliminate all bias in the newspapers, but we can get close if we want to and try to.

The reason is this: the first thing you read is going to shape your opinion.

If you read a news account of an event, that's going to impact your bias the least. If you read an opinion piece on an event and it's the first thing you've heard about it, you're going to be impacted by that opinion. And you might not then read any other posts or articles. Articles that at least appear unbiased are incredibly important, as long as we fight to combat that bias.