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Scooping your own newsroom: Should the editorial page conduct investigative reporting?

Posted May 27, 2004
Monday's Mercury News editorial page.

The San Jose Mercury News ran a remarkable investigative project on Monday, and it appeared in a highly unusual place -- the editorial page.

The editorial, which apparently took news reporters and editors by surprise, alleged that San Jose City Councilman Terry Gregory "appears to have violated numerous state and local ethics laws, possibly including soliciting a bribe."

Most newspapers carefully separate the news and opinion functions. Reporters are expected to write "objectively" -- with no partisanship. Editorial writers, on the other hand, are free to make value judgments and encouraged to take sides.

The question here is: Should the editorial page be conducting its own investigative reporting? Or should editorials stick to offering opinions?

Read the opposing arguments below and decide for yourself. Then defend your decision in the "comments" area so all can benefit from your thinking.

Editorial page should leave muckraking to reporters

To many, Monday's investigative report masquerading as an editorial looked like grandstanding: an editorial writer who wanted the glory of exploiting a hot tip rather than turning it over to the city desk for wider investigation.

Investigative reporting belongs on the news pages of a newspaper, not the editorial page. That one page is in the business of expressing the opinion of the editors. Readers might start to confuse news and opinion if they came to rely on editorials for breaking news. In this case, the editorial writers may have "scooped" the paper's own reporters, but they damaged the paper.

Readers already have enough trouble distinguishing among parts of a newspaper, especially telling the difference between opinion columnists and news reporters -- journalists whose reporting and writing styles often overlap. Changing the role of editorials further erodes the wall between fact and opinion at a time when public mistrust of journalism as biased is very high.

Readers may begin to wonder: If the opinion page is the place for news, are the news pages therefore also the place for opinion? The precedent could tarnish the hard-won reputation of the reporters as unbiased observers of events in the community.

The solid corruption story that the Mercury News broke on Monday might have had more punch if it had premiered on the front page, under the byline of a reporter. Instead, readers may have interpreted the unsigned expose as a partisan jab -- and given it not much more credence than a campaign mailer from a political opponent of the embattled city councilman. As a front-page news report, it would have also garnered more readers.

When editorial writers do their own investigations, they may breed resentment among news reporters. Editorial writers often consult reporters for insight before writing their columns. But if reporters fear being scooped, such cooperation becomes less likely and editorials will lose the "insider" knowledge often only the reporter possesses.

While some might see such internal competition as healthy, a newspaper divided against itself cannot serve the public as well as one where functions are clearly defined.

What's wrong with giving the assignment to a news editor, who can marshal more resources to the investigation? Is this a newspaper or is it a collection of private fiefdoms? The Mercury News is often hurting for solid news on the front page; on the same day the editorial ran, 51% of the paper's cover was devoted to a sensational report of a year-old killing that purported to be the Chinese equivalent of the Scott and Laci Peterson story. The Mercury News can do better than that. And it can start by letting reporters report, and opinion writers opine.

Investigations are valuable, regardless of where they appear

Editorial pages are supposed to be independent of the newsroom. Each is free to pursue public interest as it sees fit. The Mercury News' editorial team has exercised that independence by looking into the exchange of gifts for influence with the city.

All good editorial writers research facts beyond those already drawn into public light by the newspaper's own staff. But Monday's report reached another level -- full-fledged investigative reporting. Running 2,200 words, a pair of editorials made a compelling case that Councilman Terry Gregory failed to report valuable gifts from Developer Dennis Fong while Mr. Fong was conducting business with the city.

For months, the Mercury News editorial page has been critical of what it calls a "culture of permissiveness at City Hall," cozy relationships between city council members and business interests that could shortchange the public. Monday's editorials supplied the strongest evidence yet of apparently illegal influence-peddling.

There's nothing wrong with editorial writers -- most of whom were once reporters -- gathering the information they need to make their point. Journalism ethics do forbid reporters from injecting opinions into the news. There's no objection, however, to editorial reporters injecting facts into their opinions. The "wall" between editorial and news is really a one-way street. It's designed to protect news from opinion, not opinion from news. Independent information-gathering has always been the hallmark of strong editorial-writing.

Some may claim editorials aren't as credible as news presented on the front page with its implied guarantee of objectivity. Readers expecting opinion may not be open to facts or have the same confidence in them when they appear on an opinion page. But the lengths to which the editorial page went in documenting Mr. Gregory's actions would pass front-page muster in any paper. That level of documentation, including photocopies of restaurant receipts, stills from videotapes of a wine transaction and extensive interviews with both parties, compel belief.

Some say the editorial writers should have passed on the tip about Mr. Gregory to the news side. But sources with beans to spill sometimes will speak only to those with whom they've developed trust. The editorial team cultivated Mr. Fong as a source. Passing him along to news reporters might have jeopardized the story.

Finally, the Chicago Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize in 2003 for editorials investigating injustice in the application of the death penalty in Illinois.

Investigative reporting is often the most valuable kind because it exposes the hidden exercise of power. Because it's expensive, it's rare. We should applaud it wherever we find it.


Ready to make the call?

Vote below. If you're still unsure what you would decide, consult the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.


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A project of the School of Journalism and Mass Communications at San Jose State University, Grade the News is affiliated with the Graduate Program in Journalism at Stanford University and KTEH, public television in Silicon Valley.

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