Beyond 'Doonesbury': Balance about more than the comics

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: March 22, 2012

Every few months, Garry Trudeau manages to make news on the comics pages — usually because editors here and there choose not to run an episode of his “Doonesbury” strip. Happened again this month when he lampooned state lawmakers requiring women to undergo invasive and medically unnecessary ultrasounds before abortions. Stars and Stripes was among the papers that ran a substitute “rerun” episode offered by Trudeau — a choice denounced by some readers.

As I said in the Ombudsman’s blog earlier this week, I believe Stripes’ editors subbed out the ultrasound strip because their Department of Defense operating rules call for an especially strict policy of balancing political coverage. Whatever they might have thought about the ultrasound laws, they didn’t see any good way of balancing a daily drumbeat in “Doonesbury” about what already rolls off Democrats’ tongues as “the Republican war on women.”

But balance isn’t usually about the comics, but about news coverage, headlines, op-ed columns, editorial cartoons.

For instance, reader Crystal Hicks of Fayetteville, N.C., wrote to say she thinks the Stripes opinion pages have had too many pieces in favor of for-profit career colleges and not enough about some of those schools’ poor records of job placement, high student debt and incomplete degrees. Her email was prompted by a column Saturday by Robert Jackson, in which he promoted what amounts to the for-profit college industry’s “lite” alternative to regulations that would significantly tighten performance and eligibility standards for schools enrolling veterans with Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits.

“Where is the opposite view?” wrote Hicks, whose husband and son are in the service. “How about someone from the ‘Educating Sergeant Pantzke’ story done on PBS’ ‘Frontline’ program, where they actually persuaded a brain-damaged veteran to go into debt? How about someone to write about the useless degrees conferred by these organizations that specifically target veterans receiving the GI Bill? Or is Stars and Stripes so biased by its acceptance of funds from for-profit colleges that it is unable to provide a different point of view?”

In this case, the opposite view was actually in the same edition, in Tom Philpott’s regular “Military Update” column. Philpott described the more rigorous standards proposed in a bill sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., and others. The bill includes the two elements in the industry’s “lite” proposal: a formal complaint process and required counseling. But it would go much further, toughening accreditation standards, disqualifying schools with a dropout rate of more than 33 percent and requiring disclosure of graduation rates, default rates and other information to prospective students.

This is an important subject, especially to Stripes’ readers, and the newsroom tries to cover it in a balanced way, both in the news section and on the opinion pages.

“Her concerns are valid,” said copy editor Brooks E. Bowers, who selects the content on the opinion pages. “I factored all that in, including that for-profit colleges advertise with us.”

Referring to coverage by Stripes’ Pentagon reporter Leo Shane III, Bowers added, “I was more comfortable running them because of Leo’s consistent coverage of the issue with the Post-9/11 GI Bill and for-profit colleges, including why some for-profit colleges’ bona fides are being questioned and what Congress is doing about it.”

That’s consistent with how Hicks balanced the issue in a follow-up email: “Vocational schools and ‘for-profit’ schools clearly have a place in the educational spectrum. But the American taxpayers have the right to ensure they get a good return on their investment.”

On the opinion pages, Bowers tries to reflect multiple sides of many issues, and to insist that writers disclose their financial or political interests, so readers can weigh that information. Jackson’s column, for instance, identified his organization’s partnership with The Art Institutes, the for-profit college group criticized in Frontline’s “Educating Sergeant Pantzke.”

Looking back in the Stripes archive, nothing about the newsroom’s coverage of this issue strikes me as timid, or softened by the fact that career colleges market to prospective GI Bill students by advertising in Stars and Stripes. That’s the way it should be — and should continue to be.

In the archive I also found related Stripes stories about whether the American Forces Network was right to relax its “no advertising” policy for schools trying to attract GI Bill students. AFN, like Stars and Stripes, is an element of Defense Media Activity. I know they operate under different expectations, but raising a critical question about AFN was a lot like reporting about “home office” business practices. To write at arm’s length about its own or its partners’ business interests is a mark of a newsroom’s impartiality and independence.

On the day Stripes ran the Jackson and Philpott columns about for-profit colleges, a note sending readers from one to the other would have been a good way to emphasize the balance in their contrasting views. But balance isn’t really something to measure day by day, by comparing the square inches of space or the size of the headlines. It’s something a good newsroom achieves over time, imperfectly, by good faith and diligence.

The Stars and Stripes newsroom expects to be held to that standard.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

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