AnnArbor.com will set new guidelines for staff-written columns
Commentary has always had a place in journalism. A well-crafted opinion piece will be appreciated by readers and sometimes win honors in our profession.
In the most recent Associated Press news-writing contest, we had three staff members earn awards for columns they wrote.
More recently, though, we have published staff-written columns that didn’t meet the standards we hold ourselves to here.
I am writing today to acknowledge that, and to tell readers how we are dealing with the concerns they have raised over the publication of these columns.
Based on feedback from the community, as well as our own internal discussions, we plan to establish a set of guidelines for staff-written columns. While these guidelines are being developed, we will limit the number of opinion pieces by staff members, and the ones we do offer will be put through a more stringent review process before they are published.
In retrospect, we realize we should have given greater scrutiny to a column written by Business Director Nathan Bomey last week on the importance of scanning social media and news reports before using Twitter, citing several tweets that former Gov. Jennifer Granholm posted before she became aware of a murder rampage that was unfolding in Grand Rapids.
Bomey is a respected journalist with a statewide reputation who frequently writes columns on social media and other issues. His work has won praise from readers and professional awards, including a first place in news column writing from the Associated Press for a piece he did on the closing of the Willow Run plant in Ypsilanti Township.
But his column on Granholm and the Grand Rapids tragedy drew a torrent of angry comments from readers, and we fully accept their harsh judgment. We agree that timing and approach of that particular column was not appropriate in light of the events occurring in Grand Rapids.
As strong as the reaction to Bomey’s column was, it paled in comparison to the response we received to another column earlier this month by staff reporter Juliana Keeping on the topic of pet owners who do not keep their dogs on a leash as required by city ordinance.
The reaction to Keeping’s column has been as intense as anything we’ve ever seen on AnnArbor.com. More than 400 comments have been posted on the column, and they run the gamut, from the person who said, “You’re going to take a beating for this, Juliana, but I think it is dead-on . . .’’ to the commenter who said, “AnnArbor.com showed incredibly poor judgment in publishing this hateful screed and compounded the damage by allowing the threat against four-legged family members at the end.’’
As we assessed the criticism we were receiving over the column, it particularly focused on a vaguely worded sentence toward the end of the piece, which readers understandably interpreted as a threat of physical harm to any dog that was allowed to run loose and menaced Keeping’s child.
While that is not what Keeping meant to convey, ultimately we concluded the sentence in question should be removed from the column.
We understand that as a local news source, we are accountable to our readers. We welcome criticism, and we listen to it. Given the level of concern we’ve heard from the community over staff-written columns in the past week, we are undertaking a full review of how we handle commentary by members of our staff, and the result will be a set of guidelines that we will apply in the future.
Commentary has always had a place in the journalistic tradition, and always will. If anything, opinion has taken an elevated role in the online world. When a member of our staff writes a column, it may be to add analysis to a news event, tell a story in a more personal voice or relate some personal experience that is relevant to issues or life in our community. We are not retreating from staff commentary, but rather we’re taking steps to make sure that it is done well.
Over the weekend, News Director Paula Gardner posted a column offering five reasons why downtown Ann Arbor may currently be at a crossroads. Given the recent reader concern over columns we’ve published, this one received particularly careful review. When it was published, it elicited a lively discussion, including some critical comments, which is fine. Our goal is not to avoid controversy or criticism. It is to offer commentary that is insightful and well written, and to welcome a community conversation around it.
We will continue to present commentary from staff, with necessary internal controls in place to ensure it is work of which we are proud and in which the community finds value.