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From Mike Madden's, "Opiate of the Masses," Fall '98 From Mike Madden's, "Opiate of the Masses," Fall '98For a newspaper that's read by more than 14,000 people every day, The Daily Pennsylvanian can be awfully mysterious. Every day, decisions are made about every story in the paper that affect how readers get their news. If a story goes on the front page, that influences how people receive its message, and if something gets buried on page 10, that says something, too. Or take corrections. In tiny print on the bottom of page 2, they can seem almost like they're worded specifically to be incomprehensible to anyone who didn't already know about the error they're correcting. How useful is it to know that "Yesterday's DP should not have given the impression that College senior Mike Madden put a bomb in College Hall," if you don't also get an explanation of what really did happen? Or why the paper made the error in the first place, or how it was discovered? In fact, very few people around campus know much about how the DP works. To the vast majority of casual readers, the paper may as well be a monolithic, monopolistic, self-styled, all-knowing Penn version of The New York Times, put out by a staff that toes some organizational line on every issue and never disagrees about coverage. To make matters worse, so much ignorance and obfuscation surrounds a paper that purports to scrutinize the entire University, from the largest department in the Office of the President to the budget for the smallest Student Activities Council group. The DP, on a daily basis, holds everyone else at the University to rigorous standards of conduct and behavior -- without making any attempt to report on its own organization or decisions. Fortunately for the DP and for Penn, there's an easy way out of this bind. The Daily Pennsylvanian needs a real ombudsman. And it's long overdue. The paper's bylaws say the executive editor serves as the ombudsman, or reader representative. That means the executive editor is supposed to hear reader complaints -- or compliments -- and present them to the rest of the staff, so the paper isn't put out from some sort of ivory tower, totally closed off from the rest of campus in the windowless "Pink Palace" at 40th and Walnut streets. In practice, though, this just doesn't work. Most executive editors only write about the paper when they're announcing some "bold new stroke" that the staff wants readers to get excited about. Three years ago, it was the launch of the DP's then-fledgling World Wide Web site; two years ago, the debut of color and a new design; this year and the last, plans to focus heavily on editorial content. But no executive editor -- or anyone from inside the paper's staff -- has written candidly and openly about flaws in the paper's coverage in the nearly four years I've been at Penn. Quite naturally, in fact. It would be practically impossible for anyone who spends 50 hours a week putting the paper out to take that crucial step away from its content required to analyze the paper and ask, "Is this the best they could have done?" In fact, I'm a good example of this problem. As the managing editor last year, a news editor the year before and a beat reporter for a year before that, no matter how much I tried I couldn't look at the DP's news stories with an entirely unbiased mind. And it took me until this semester to realize the full implications of that problem. Although in retrospect I wish I'd had an informed eye glancing over my shoulder, I still never thought much about an ombudsman until this semester -- the first one in three years where I'm only an occasional visitor to the DP's office. The way things are now, the entire campus suffers a disservice. No one voice can be counted on to hold the DP accountable -- regularly, within its own pages -- for what it prints. Similarly, no one outside the paper's staff gets a good understanding of the dynamics of what goes on every Sunday through Thursday night to put the paper out. On one hand, that's a shame, because you're missing some pretty interesting stuff. I've been involved in more than a few all-out screaming matches in the middle of the newsroom over how the paper should play a certain story -- what its angle should be, where it should run or whether it's even a story at all. There's often quite a bit of dissent within the DP over what it prints. And the evolution of big stories from when the idea comes up to when the papers hit the stands can be more convoluted than most people might imagine. But most importantly, readers miss out on the opportunity to see what would happen when the DP turns its staff's considerable reporting skills loose on itself. The paper never puts itself under the glare of the klieg lights it tries to shine all over everything else. Last February, for example, I approved an idea that seemed good at first glance, and never thought twice about it until it was too late. For a story about an alleged robber who had worked at Uni-Mart, the DP ran a photo of the counter where he used to work -- with a young black man working behind it. I thought the photo would be useful, because it would show exactly where in the store the robbery suspect had worked. In fact, what no one at the paper realized at the time was that the photo also seemed to imply that the young black man behind the counter --Ewho seemed to match the DP's description of the suspect -- was the alleged robber. He wasn't. My decision to run the photo was a terrible one, though I genuinely made it without thinking of the likely impact. I instantly regretted it, but I deserved to be called on it -- in the paper's pages, and by the newspaper itself, as well as by the many readers who correctly said the photo should never have run. But beyond pointing out the DP's faults, an ombudsman could also explain why the paper chose to take controversial stands. Last October, when the paper aggressively covered a student's charge that he'd been assaulted by three varsity football players, a lot of people wondered why the DP was making such a big deal out of it. In fact, the editors and I had reasons for the coverage. Briefly, we thought the alleged assailants were public figures, as football players, and so their role in the incident seemed newsworthy. If the paper had an ombudsman last year, I would have had to explain in print why I decided to pursue the story -- exactly the way reporters force University officials to explain their own decisions every day. Readers could have evaluated my rationale for themselves, because they would have known what it was. An independent ombudsman -- who knew the paper well and knew the people involved in decision-making -- would be able to call attention to questions like that, find out what or even whether the staff thought about the issue and report back to the rest of the University community. All in the pages of the DP itself. It would be as simple as dispatching one of the paper's 20 or so regular beat reporters to the ombudsman beat next year. By reading the paper carefully, paying attention to what gets printed -- and how -- and talking to a wide range of readers and sources all over campus, a DP ombudsman could really make a difference in how people look at the paper, for good or for bad. Only about 40 papers around the country have a regular, independent ombudsman to critique their content or report on news inside the organizations, but the ones that do include some of the best in the nation. The Washington Post, The Boston Globe and The Philadelphia Inquirer, as well as some excellent smaller papers, all recognize the need for the press to act as its own watchdog. Letters to the editor and "guest columns," of course, also help keep a paper in line, but it's a much bolder step toward true integrity when a newspaper can appoint someone who knows the organization to take a hard look at it on a regular basis. A regular, institutional critique on the Editorial page rings much more powerfully -- both in and out of a paper's walls -- than sporadic letters from people who may or may not know the whole story behind what they're complaining about.

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