Should local newspapers and hyperlocal websites be impartial?

When describing The Lichfield Blog I will often include the word ‘impartial’ into the mix. Perhaps our slogan should be ‘blog by name, news by nature’!

It’s a stance decided long ago – that we would only ever tell people what’s happening and never tell them what to think about that.

Instead, we allow the community to decide themselves what they think about it and express that through the comments section on every article.

You could say we have faith in people to have the intelligence to make up their own minds, however mis-placed some think that to be. Personally, I believe that’s the right thing to do.

Now, via Nigel Barlow I read a post criticising the Manchester Evening News’ “anti-government” stance over cuts.

The author, Steve Middleton, says that the MEN shouldn’t be setting the agenda in this way but merely reporting on the issue instead.

Obviously by this point you’d expect me to agree with me. However, the ongoing issue of the HS2 route through Lichfield was picked up by my local paper, the Lichfield Mercury who ran, and encouraged signatories to, a petition against the proposed line.

I actually considered this to be a good thing as it gave local residents and businesses more of a chance to make their voice heard to Government.

So, should local newspapers and indeed local hyperlocal news* sites be impartial and allow the community to make up their mind? Or can they be biased and carry a one-sided view and still serve their readership well?

One thing to consider is where an area only has one local paper to rely on…

* Note I’m talking about a sub-set of the hyperlocal genre here.

14 thoughts on “Should local newspapers and hyperlocal websites be impartial?”

  1. Hi Phil,
    Good blog and an interesting question you have posed there.
    Most newspapers see campaigning as a crucial part of their role within the community. I think you’re correct in saying that it gives local residents and businesses more of a chance to make their voice heard.
    Of course it is important that you strike a chord with your readership when launching a campaign. The thinking behind it has got to be sound too.
    But no matter what you do as a publisher (whether in print or online) people are always going to disagree. You can hope that people will get behind the campaign and it will gather pace, but even then there’s a risk people will be opposed to it.
    But as long as there is space to give an opinion and debate the matter then people can still make up their own mind.
    I think campaigning for the good of your community is a good thing – it can galvinise your readers (eg acocksgreenfocusgroup.org.uk).

  2. Very interesting Phil. Firstly I’d say that there is no such thing as impartial; the very act of editing copy for publication introduces some bias. But I’d also say that we live in a world where, increasingly, holding a strong opinion and voicing it is in some way viewed as a hostile act. But we need opinion. We need people with interesting and uncomfortable things to say and a unique voice with which to say them. I do think what you’re talking about is chiefly news reporting, and in that case, yes, you have to be careful to be even-handed, but what’s wrong with carrying a feature on HS2 which comprises two opposing viewpoints? Readers like attitude; they like to have their feathers ruffled. It’s what keeps people engaging with content.

  3. leave impartiality to the journalism theorists and the bbc

    the local web is about speaking with a local voice that works for you and your audience. people would find it odd if you weren’t passionate about your area. but it’s all about finding a judicious balance.

    The Independent is nice and impartial, look how well that does.

    impartiality is a hangover from state funding, powerful media such as TV granted an oligolpoly by the state in the days of spectrum scarcity and in print (a journalism academic told me) from the very early days of selling advertising so that advertisers knew that you werne’t going to sell advertorial to their competitors.

  4. As you can imagine in the Manchester world of media gossip,there has alreday been some discussion on Steve’s Post.

    I think that there is a number of things to consider.Should newspapers be impartial? Well in an ideal world yes they should,especially when it comes down to politics.

    The issue of cuts in Manchester is not one sided,there is another argument and a different measure as to how much Manchester has been effected.The MEN is driving a particular political agenda from one side of the council chamber and to my knowledge has not at all reported the other side.

    When you are influencing voters,you should give all the facts as a responsible journalist and not just jump on a bandwagon.

    If you are campiagning against the closure of a railine,or rubbish in the street,that is a different issue,but politics is too complicated to ever be black and white.

    There is a place for comment and opinion in any publication-on the comment and opinion pages as we do on Inside the M60-there we can vent our interpretation of events wuth readers clearly understanding our position as we have done with the cuts in Manchester.

    Now I know there is going to be chorus of how newspapers have through history had to be campaigners and form opinion etc etc and why all newspapers do it.

    Well just because it happens,doesn’t make it right.Newspapers shouldnt be setting the agenda,whether its the Guardian and Coulson or the Mail and Miliband,that’s not what I buy a paper for.

    I want to form my own opinion

    1. What proof do you have that the Manchester Evening News iis motivated by politics here or is biased? Are you spending too much time criticizing the newspaper rather than focusing on your journalism? Your live coverage of the student demos also carried criticism of other media rather than focusing on reporting. the public doesn’t care much for media tit for tat

  5. I agree with William; I’d say a key ingredient is authentic local voices, and deciding how far to let people have their heads, and judging what’s acceptable, is a big part of what an editor does for a living. The conundrum for hyperlocals is how are they going to afford to inject this lively tone of voice into their projects – it’s not just a case of paying for good writing, is also a case of having the time to oversee and edit the content properly.

  6. I agree with Annette, who has hit the nail on the head. It is impossible (however desirable) to be totally impartial when reporting on anything. There will inevitably be some element of bias and if there isn’t, quite frankly, it wouldn’t be interesting reading. You can provoke debate and discussion in or on an open forum without any apparent bias (as our local MP frequently does on his Facebook page) and I guess you can do that on the blog as well. So long as you aren’t engaging as the same scare tactics employed by the likes of the Daily Mail, who seem hell-bent on terrifying the public about anything and everything, I reckon you’re doing a good job.

  7. No, they shouldn’t be impartial. That’s the simple answer.

    I think it all depends on what the ‘story’ or ‘issue’ is. If it’s blatantly obvious 99% of people are going to think something is downright daft and dangerous then of course you should crank up the tanks and shoot hell for leather against it and campaign to the death.

    But, when it comes, particularly to Political issues (emphasis on the capital P), so things inside the council chamber etc, then we need to stay impartial and let the parties, supporters and public debate it out – and as you say, by having the comment threads on your site this allows people to do this.

    We’ve got a campaign potentially coming up on Blog Preston, where a group wants to raise £1.5m to restore an old cinema back to public use. Should we back it? Yes, probably. Would we run a piece saying ‘leave the cinema alone’, yes we probably would – and I’m pretty sure our readers would demolish the writer of that post in the comment thread.

  8. I think the first issue to address is where the main source of criticism has come from: A Liberal Democrat election agent, who, had the Tories been in power on their own, would in all probability have been just as ‘anti cuts’ as anyone else. It’s sums up the disaster which has befallen the Lib Dems very neatly.

    I don’t understand the logic of newspapers not being allowed to set an agenda – it implies that people aren’t capable of making up their own minds, and will only believe what is put in front of them.

    Running a campaign doesn’t mean you only report one side. It’s perfectly possible for a campaigning newspaper to report all sides of a debate/issue and still take a stance.

    Essentially, any campaign can be accused of being a political issue. I worked on a campaign against care home closures in Lancashire and Labour claimed that was political. It wasn’t – it was driven by anger among readers about the closure of 35 OAP homes. To that end, I don’t see the MEN campaign as being political, it’s a response to what a lot of readers will be feeling. It’s no different to campaigning against the closure of a hospital or a fire station – it’s opposing something on a large scale because of the scale of the cuts coming along.

    Ed makes a very valid point – online tools make it easier than ever before to be fair while campaigning – the comment box is a very valuable space. I suspect a piece in favour of HS2 on Lichfield Blog would prove that?

    In short: Newspaper campaigns in interests of its readers. There are many hyperlocal news sites which manage to do the same very effectively. It’s about knowing your audience.

  9. I think there’s room for both and each site can make it’s own mind up. However, each site should then be clear about the editorial policy it uses.

    Myself, if I’d ever got burntwood.org off the ground, I was hoping to mix the 2 with impartial reporting of news / facts and a separate editorial / blog section that was clearly identified as not being impartial. I had hoped that this section would then be able to feature views from people with a particular stand point on various issues.

  10. Hi

    Just woken up to the fact that we have been mentioned here (See Paul Bradley)when I was already preparing a comment on why it is not wrong for hyperlocals to have a viewpoint! I also think that the point made by theaardvark about the possibility of different sections in a blog is an interesting one. Maybe it also depends what KIND of blog – there may be room for more than one blog in an area: we have several of different kinds. In our case we are not just a blog, but a campaign group with monthly meetings and an active agenda (The blog came later) and we are definitely there to have a viewpoint. We got stuck with the name Acocks Green Focus Group by accident It was meant to be a ‘working title until we came up with something better. Now we like it – that’s what we do. We ‘focus’ on issues that we think are important. We don’t deal with everything in the area. Another local blog takes a broader view, and provides good general information about the area, and, occasionally, because we don’t deal with everything, we pass stories on, but they also sometimes highlight something we are saying, and put in a link. (And we also sometimes link to them) So maybe, two or more blogs in an area, and/or blogs that have both general sections and opinon sections can be good.

    That much said, is there any such thing as complete impartiality? I decided many years ago on an Open University course ‘Mass Communications and Society’ that a pose of complete impartiality is something to beware. Is there any such thing? Are certain views (eg the status quo one) being smuggled in under the guise of impartiality. I haven’t got anyone’s blog in mind, offhand, but maybe that is a risks we should bear in mind sometimes?

  11. I don’t think impartiality is possible or desirable. For a start you always want to reflect your readers’ interests, and those are never going to be impartial. Newspapers are always going to give prominence to stories which affect and appeal to the highest number of people in their readership.

    I totally disagree with William Perrin regarding the Independent. It’s not impartial at all but left-wing. It tries to be impartial sometimes with strange front page stories that by-pass the news agenda, but that makes it less interesting in my opinion, not more.

    Paul’s right though, whatever any publisher does there will be people there to say it is doing it wrong.

  12. Thank you all very much for your interesting comments and sorry it’s taken so long to reply.

    I can see a theme running through many of them which is that of local media needing to reflect, or cater to, the views of the community. I can’t agree with that because I vehemently believe that (in a world where the news media is referred to as the fourth estate) it is the duty of local media to adequately inform the community so as they can make informed decisions.

    Impartiality – the giving of an equal voice to all sides – can be difficult in some circumstances (i.e. Lichfield’s Conservative-controlled council has better PR resources than the local Labour party, leading to accusations that TLB is council-run) but on the really important issues it certainly isn’t if the editor is doing his job properly (Ross’ fervent determination to get an interview with Labour’s general election candidate springs to mind).

    Having read through your comments though I think it is impossible not to be biased. In fact, you can reflect that in the publication, too but as Paul suggests that should be clearly marked as such. We’re actually planning something like that.

    That said, I worry that by showing a view point you plant a seed of doubt in the minds of your readers as to whether you really care for their interests. By showing no viewpoint and merely reporting what you’re told, you are simply acting as an informer – leaving the community to trust that you will never tell them anything other than the facts. And let’s face it journalists at the moment aren’t exactly at the good end of the trust scale.

    Ross always says that we’ll publish anything that is of interest to people in Lichfield – which to my mind is the simplest way of being impartial – we don’t turn anything away because we don’t think it’s valuable – it might be to someone. Instead we let the community decide what they’ll read and so far we have a very good, engaged audience, many now using TLB as their primary local news source.

  13. Interesting discussion – but I don’t think that ability to respond to community opinion and working to inform that opinion are mutually exclusive.

    I worked on a paper for a long time where the editor told me that he considered the title to be ‘the only real opposition to the council.’ By that, he didn’t meant that we just opposed everything the council did, but did what the opposition in the council chamber were failing to do – scrutinising decisions and plans by the council and ensuring the public got to know all sides.

    The paper was broadly supportive of plans to regenerate the town centre, but it didn’t stop us reporting all the problems along the way.

    If, however, the paper had just said ‘this town centre regeneration is great’ and ignored all the problems, then it would have been letting readers down. The same applies to campaigns. It’s entirely possible for a newspaper to support a campaign for more council funding from government while retaining the right to scrutinise council spending in general.

    In short – it’s entirely possible to take a stand on a certain issue or subject without losing the ability to do as you do with Lichfield Blog – covering everything which readers consider valuable.

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