Mopping up after a tough campaign season
Note: This column was written a week before Election Day.
I had assumed the Cleveland Heights mayoral campaign would be the exciting race in this election season. Then the school board election took over. I think it's a sign of civic health that people are so engaged and passionate about local elections; it hasn't always been that way. But it's not pleasant.
As always, the goal for the Heights Observer was to serve as a venue for discussion about election issues without taking sides in the debate.
We didn’t make any endorsements (we never do), and we strived to publish the full range of viewpoints we received. That didn’t stop people from complaining we were biased—particularly those whose viewpoints we chose not to print.
Making such decisions is anguishing; it’s a judging process and contributors are certain to take it personally. And we have to do it more than we used to, because we receive more submissions than ever before—especially around election time.
This year, after the October issue was printed, we weren’t even able to keep up with posting the continuing rush of letters and opinions online. (The November issue is a post-election edition, given that voting ends on the second day of its 30-day shelf life.)
If someone you know submitted a letter or opinion that didn’t get published, here are the most likely reasons why:
It arrived after Oct. 11: This was the deadline for the November print issue. After that date, staff needed to move on to produce that issue.
Length: We enforced the 400-word limit on submissions. People who sent in longer pieces were given the opportunity to shorten and resubmit them.
Authorship: We prefer to publish letters from a variety of authors. Most non-candidates who made multiple submissions over the last few months saw only one or two of them published.
Originality: Often, we’ll get letters from different people that make essentially the same point. We’ll print a few of them, but we favor fresh points of view.
Focus: A letter about a candidate is highly relevant. A letter about someone else's opinion about a candidate is sideshow. We tried to keep the discussion focused on the center ring.
Tone: I could write an entire column on civility. For now, though, as a rule, we don’t publish letters that make personal attacks on other people. But just as a referee might be slow with the whistle during a big game, we allowed some leeway in the way people expressed themselves as tensions rose during the campaign season.
Also, there's a different standard for candidates. When you step into the public arena to run for office, you open yourself to a level of scrutiny and criticism that doesn't apply to private citizens.
Factuality: When something is stated as a fact that we don’t know to be true, we’ll ask the author to substantiate it or we'll do our best to fact-check it ourselves. But we also know our limitations—both in terms of staff resources and topical expertise. An example: school finance. It's complicated, and objective expertise is hard to find. If we aren’t able to verify factual statements and the author doesn’t provide requested documentation, we’ll err on the side of editing out the material in question or not publishing it at all.
Nothing we do draws faster accusations of bias than the effort we make to aviod publishing errroneous information about complicated subjects.
The simple truth is that we aren't an investigative body, but we are reponsible for what we publish. We take that responsiblity seriously.
Cleveland Heights resident Bob Rosenbaum is co-chair of the Heights Observer Advisory Committee, and is responsible for its advertising sales and market development.