Does 20 people at a meeting constitute a front-page story? That’s what some readers were asking in response to a story in Monday’s paper about a group of students attempting to launch an effort to force Michigan Student Assembly President Zack Yost out of office (Students launch effort to oust Yost, 12/03/2007).
I don’t think the question really was about the story – considering the low turnout for the recent MSA election, 20 people could almost be seen as a significant part of the University’s voting population. I think readers complained about the story as a way to criticize what they perceived as a piling on by the Daily on Yost and his now-infamous Facebook.com group. In the last week alone, there have been three stories about the controversy and an editorial asking Yost to step down – not to mention an opinion piece by Yost himself apologizing for his actions.
How should a newspaper handle this sort of controversy? Anyone who has followed the mainstream media has been frustrated by the level of political discourse, which can sometimes seem like grade-school name-calling. Just look at the coverage of the presidential campaign: Articles accused Barack Obama of being unpatriotic when he didn’t hold his hand over his heart during the pledge of allegiance, and there was another series of stories asking whether Hillary Clinton wore a dress that was too revealing during a Senate speech.
Often it might seem newspapers value the trivial over the substantive when it comes to political debates. The idea is that “gotcha” journalism doesn’t serve the public good and only encourages candidates and politicians to be more concerned about how they present themselves to the public instead of honestly airing their views. And the truth is, a lot of the trivial makes its way into political coverage. While readers like to think they are high-minded and want only substantive news, often what one person finds trivial, another finds vitally important. I think the letters to the Daily over l’affaire Facebook demonstrate this divide.
The fear over this controversy is that if all the Daily is doing is shaming Yost, then he’ll know never to say anything controversial again, but he won’t actually change his behavior. Also, there are concerns that the real problems in MSA are getting lost in the shuffle of news coverage.
But I think the real lesson over the Facebook controversy is this: Everything is fair game in politics. The Daily’s responsibility isn’t to restrain itself from reporting controversial facts that may or may not turn out to be trivial in the long run. Its job is to make sure the facts it does report accurately represent the controversies facing MSA and its responsibilities to its students.
Which leads us to the student election: Did the Daily do enough to publicize the election? The problem is that much of the Michigan Action Party faced slim opposition in the campaign for the assembly, and a rather uncontested election generally doesn’t result in a high number of news stories.
“It was borderline uncontested,” said David Mekelburg, the associate news editor who coordinates MSA coverage.
The fall elections are the equivalent of midterm elections for MSA. The Daily typically provides more thorough coverage during the spring elections, when MSA executive board positions are up for grabs. It’s coverage includes endorsements by the editorial page.
I would suggest in the future though that the Daily run at least some short statements on each of the candidates in the race with some basic information about their positions for the fall election. This is a way to give candidates at least some voice in the paper in the upcoming elections, even if their candidacy doesn’t warrant a full-fledged news story.
Another issue raised by the coverage of Yost and his Facebook group was the use of profanity. In the article titled “MSA president under fire for Facebook group that mocked rep,” appeared a quotation that read: “I’ll give that kid a fucking disability he can write home about if he keeps sending these code amendments to everyone.”
Daily Editor in Chief Karl Stampfl said that the quote was absolutely necessary to provide context to the story. Stampfl said the paper has a more tolerant attitude about the use of profanity than most mainstream newspapers.
“It’s consistent with the spirit of the Daily and its openness,” Stampfl said.
– Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.