Right to reply

Posted by Ian
There’s an old rule of journalism which says if you’re covering a contentious story involving two aggrieved parties, and receive complaints accusing you of being biased towards not one but both of them, chances are your tone of voice is more or less right. During the last few weeks we’ve received comments from you, our users, charging the homepage with running stories concerning the Middle East crisis that are pro-Israel…and also pro-Hezbollah.
"Why are all your news headline so one sided?" complained one reader. "’Israel pounds Lebanon’? I think you will find Israel is ‘pounding’ only Hezbollah strongholds‚ not the whole of Lebanon, while Hezbollah are doing a fair amount of indiscriminate pounding of northern Israel with no concern for civilian life at all."
"Answer me one simple question‚" countered another user. "Why are you people not advertising oppression of Israel against Lebanon? Don’t you have any proof yet? You don’t have courage to tell the truth."
A third user wrote, in reference to a story concerning a potential United Nations resolution on the conflict: "This is a one sided report. It only mentions the resolution’s demands on Israel. It does not detail the demands on the Palestinians." And a different kind of complaint came from a user who confessed, "I am troubled by the minimal coverage of the Middle East crisis on the homepage. I don’t expect in-depth analysis of every worldwide tragedy, but there appears to be what amounts to a regional conflict in probably the most volatile region of the world, and your homepage headline is ‘Growing Your Income’."
Since the crisis began we have taken great pains to both select and phrase our news headlines in such a way as to present stories in as accurate and impartial a manner as we possibly can. We are at all times sensitive to the complexities and the ambiguities of the conflict, but acknowledge that vastly different nuances and implications can, if so desired, be read into the most straightforward of expressions.
The choice of the headline ‘Israel pounds Lebanon’ was, we feel, a correct one, referring as it did to incidences of Israel firing missiles which, rightly or wrongly, were falling upon a great area of its neighbouring country, not merely Hezbollah strongholds. Conversely we would hope we would never "advertise" Israeli oppression of Lebanon, rather report incidences of demonstrable conflict when and where appropriate.
The complaint concerning the United Nations resolution refers more to the content of the actual story, syndicated from one of MSN’s partners (Reuters, the Press Association and ITN), rather than our choice of headline. Each of these three is an internationally-acclaimed professional organisation with decades of experience reporting on foreign conflicts and wars. Moreover, given we have more than one source upon which to call for our news stories, we would hope our resulting homepage coverage would be even more authoritative and comprehensive than if we were relying upon just a single channel of information. Coincidentally, our new news channel – complete with this trio of partners – launched within days of the outbreak of the conflict.
We always monitor the copy we receive from these sources, but clearly during periods of pronounced crisis and global tension, even more care and attention is needed on our behalf to ensure scrupulous balance and impartiality.
As regards the amount of coverage we’ve been giving to the Middle East on the homepage, during the last couple of weeks we have made a concerted effort to step up the quantity of articles addressing the conflict, including running regular links to our Middle East guide, leading with articles examining the consequences of the war on the oil industry and the state of the world’s economy, and ensuring our lead news story is always covering the latest from the region.
However we concede we probably could have done more. Also, we need to pay greater attention to the overall tone and feel of the homepage on days when breaking news is of a profoundly sombre and contentious nature. We’ll bear all this in mind as, given what seems likely, the conflict continues through August.
Turning to other subjects, one user mailed early this month to complain that our coverage of Andy Murray’s performance at Wimbledon was "as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Your site should carry a warning: ‘MSN staff are anti-UK sports people‚ unless they win’." In defence, we did run sport headlines covering Murray’s (albeit limited) progress through the tournament, as well as running a spotlight feature on the day of his final match. As for being anti-UK sports people "unless they win", our continuous coverage of the England football team throughout one of its worst ever World Cups surely suggests otherwise!
Another user recorded their frustration with some of the links which were appearing in the Money section of the homepage. "I’m just curious why we keep seeing the same articles month in month out," they observed. "For example ‘Scams everyone falls for‘ and ‘Celebs who have gone bankrupt‘. These articles weren’t interesting the first time and certainly not now. I think they have been milked quite enough now, so why don’t you change them before they become unbearably tedious?"
Ellen Cresswell, who manages the Money channel, replies: "The reason you’ll see some headlines several times is that they’ve been very popular with you, our users. Several million of you view the MSN home page every day, and we want to make sure that as many as possible of you can read the content that other users have found popular. However, we’ve taken your comments on board and will endeavour to avoid repeating headlines."
Finally, we’ve had a few comments complaining of the homepage appearing a bit, well, out of date. "I can read your news in yesterday’s paper!" complained one. "I’ve had news from 17th July for the last week," noted another, "and it’s getting a bit boring now it’s the 25th – is the person who does your homepage on holiday?" "Hey – it’s Tuesday‚ not Monday!" observed a third. "I can’t get off Monday’s home page – why?"
Worry not; the homepage has not been abandoned Marie Celeste-like for the summer, nor have we adopted a Groundhog Day-style approach to changing our links. In fact in all instances the problem was, we suspect, to do with the homepage not updating on users’ own computers. If in doubt, refresh your screen. Repeatedly, if necessary.
Many thanks for all your comments. Keep them coming.
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