Journalism Fail: Why the Portland Press Herald’s apology for covering Ramadan is wrong
How exactly did “A show of faith and forgiveness” turn into an apology? Gutlessness.
Readers of the Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram may have been surprised to find an open letter from Publisher Richard Conner yesterday (and today), offering an apology for a story that appeared in print and online.
Was it a grossly inaccurate story? A clear violation of the paper’s standards and practices? Did it perpetrate a crime against the community?
No. They published a story and photos on Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan. And thanks to the date, Sept. 11, that drove some people into hysterics.
In his letter Connor apologized to readers for showing a lack of sensitivity and not balancing their coverage with 9/11 events.
Unfortunately what Connor’s done is created a self-inflicted wound to his newspaper. By apologizing for a factual story portraying part of the community it covers, the Press Herald has damaged its ability to educate, betrayed the journalists who work there, alienated a part of their audience and shown that editorial control can be won by the power of the mob.
In offering the apology, Connor was taking a reactionary stance to an outcry from readers, over email, phone calls, Facebook and Twitter. Since I’ve never sat in the big seat reserved for publishers, this may be guesswork, but taking flak for (and defending) stories is part of the job. As he outlines in his letter, the work of assigning, editing and placing stories is a serious one that involves a large group of people, all of whom just got thrown under the bus in favor of the commenting class.
As someone who has often been a supporter of online comments and engaging readers through things like Facebook and Twitter, I’ve always believe those tools were important to connecting with the community and creating a dialogue. Comments can be informative and illuminating, but they can also be hateful and vitriolic, and it’s the job of newspapers to manage those interactions and learn. It’s not the job of newspapers to cede editorial control to the crowd, which is what the Press Herald has done here.
Editor’s notes and letters are reserved for the biggest of occasions and errors. But in this case nothing was done wrong. A factual, well-written and photographed story was published, which, most days, is considered a win in journalism. Let me repeat: Nothing was done wrong.
The “error,” in this case, was not playing to some sort of notion of balance between a religious observance and a national tragedy. But more on that in a second. Even though Connor says he agrees that the story is newsworthy, the act of issuing a letter to readers over an error that does not violate the paper’s standards, is a betrayal to the writers, photographers, copy editors and everyone down to the pressmen at the paper.
Worse, the apology, in trying to make amends with one part of the community, does it at the expense of another. In trying to mollify the outrage and indignation of readers upset over showing Muslims practicing their religion, the Press Herald has now helped to alienate Muslims in Portland and around Maine.
And it’s here where the Press Herald made it’s biggest failure: By apologizing for this episode they’ve injured their ability to educate readers. In this case the lesson lost is simple – tolerance. Like newspapers around the country the Press Herald covers its religious communities through their observances, whether it’s Rosh Hashanah, Easter or Ramadan. This matters because people of faith aren’t just newspaper readers, they’re part of the community that journalists are responsible for covering. Through writing about these events we’re supposed to gain greater insight into where we live and the people around us.
And with one letter, Richard Conner undid all of it. Whether they like it or not, by apologizing for a story about Mainers practicing their religion that ran on Sept. 11, the Press Herald has conflated the Muslim religion with the terrorist attacks of 9 years ago. Instead of taking this episode for what it is, a “teachable moment,” (sorry, I hate that phrase too, but it fits here) the Press Herald has lent credence to intolerance, caused hurt to their community and insulted the intelligence of their readers.
As a disclosure, it’s important to note that for more than seven years I called the Press Herald home. It was a place that gave me incredible opportunities to grow as a journalist. I cherish the stories I wrote, the people I met and the colleagues I worked with. When a financial decision forced a new rounds of layoffs and buyouts at the paper this spring, I took one in what was arguably the toughest decision of my life.
Since that time I’ve never spoken out about my former employer. Maybe it’s my “wholesome Midwestern upbringing” or just common sense to not burn bridges and speak out of class. I still know plenty of good people working there and I respect what they do.
I say that as means of context: For the first time ever I can say I am embarrassed to have worked there.
I can also say I’m happy I don’t draw a paycheck from there any more.