January 12, 2011

GEORGE SMITH: Facts must be accurate, but columns, blogs also express opinions

Making a transition from lobbyist to journalist required an examination of the rules and ethics of my new profession. Some of my questions have no answers, but here’s what I’ve learned so far.

Fairness to politicians is required for the “Wildfire” TV show I co-host with Harry Vanderweide, seen on our website and the Time Warner Network. When we hosted a  one-hour gubernatorial debate last October, Time Warner required us to invite all of the candidates. They didn’t all have to appear, but they had to be invited. Of course, they all agreed to participate.

Otherwise, a TV talk show has no specific rules, except that cursing must be kept to a minimum. Certainly, there is no requirement to treat our talk-show guests fairly or objectively. TV is, after all, supposed to entertain us. Our new “You’ve Been Bad, Very Bad” segment is proving to be very popular.

For this newspaper column, I must disclose any personal interest in my weekly topic. I try to work it into the narrative. For example, when I worked for the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, I had to disclose my affiliation if my column reflected on an issue in which SAM had a stake.

Over the years, I’ve had eight editors of this column, and all were sticklers for the truth. Getting my facts right has always been very important. My opinions can be cock-eyed, but the facts presented in this column must be accurate. I’ve done fair to middling on that score, with my mistakes being inadvertent or the result of sloppy research.

In my website blog for Downeast magazine, similar rules apply, even though it’s only on the website and not in the magazine. Each blog entry is edited carefully before it goes up on the website.

During the 18 years I worked for SAM, the editor and publisher of The Maine Sportsman looked for real news in my Capitol News monthly column, not promotion of SAM or my opinions. I often snuck in my opinions, but when I was blatant, they were edited out of the column.

Throughout the years, I did a bit of travel writing, usually about hunting and fishing trips. Outdoor writers get a lot of free trips and equipment, with the understanding that they will write or speak favorably about those trips and equipment in a publication or TV show. That was always easy for me because I never had a bad trip, and the little bit of equipment or clothing I received was always excellent.

Which brings us to my new endeavors, my own website news blog, and the decision by my wife Linda and I to begin writing travel blogs and columns to promote travel in Maine. Our first weekly travel column for the Kennebec Journal and Morning Sentinel will appear soon. We also write for all of the publications of the Maine Tourism Association, and present our “Travelin Maine(rs)” blog on my website.

It’s well known that travel writers pay for nothing, although so far, we’ve paid for about half of the meals and lodging and activities we’ve reviewed. This newspaper requires that we disclose the fact that the meal or trip was free.

That is unusual and not the general rule in many publications. So disclosure is a hit or miss thing in the travel writing business, mostly miss.

My dilemma, which has not yet occurred, is what to do about a free meal or trip that is not up to our standards. So far, I’m thinking I just won’t write about it.

Such an occurrence, however, might be suitable for our travel blog. As you’ve probably noticed, website blogs published by the authors have no particular standards. I strive for honesty and accuracy in the news and travel blogs on my website, but in that location, you’re going to get my opinions as well.

I’ve been surprised by criticism that my news blog presents the news as I see it, including subtle and not-so-subtle insertion of my opinions. I’ve responded this way:

For Christmas, Linda gave me a T-shirt that has my website address on the front. On the back, it says, “It’s all about me.” Exactly!

On my website blogs, I intend to be an activist journalist, undefined in the reporting world, but patently clear to all readers. Perhaps we’ll start each blog with this: “Warning: George’s Outdoor News is either about George or full of George’s opinions. Proceed with caution.”

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. You can read more of Smith’s writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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