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E-Mailbag: Questions And Answers About Questions And Answers

Last night we received an email from "DYN175" asking the following:
What are the standards at CBS News for reporting vs. editorializing?

On the "CBS Evening News" tonight, February 14th, [Capitol Hill Correspondent] Sharyl Attkisson gave a report on Homeland Security Secretary [Michael] Chertoff and his actions dealing with Hurricane Katrina. In the Q&A after the report, [anchor] Bob Schieffer turned to her and asked, "Do you think, Sharyl, that Chertoff's job is on the line here?"

Such a question clearly requires the reporter to state a personal opinion. It would seem to me that this would cross the line into editorializing. Does CBS News have any written standards on this?

I talked to Bob Schieffer about that issue and the question and answer portion of the "Evening News" more generally.

"We're not trying to have people give personal opinions," says Schieffer. "We're trying to explain, to put things into context." He added: "There has been all this behind the scenes questioning and whispering about whether Chertoff will lose his job, and that's why I asked her about it."

Schieffer compares the question and answer portion of the "Evening News" broadcast to a sidebar in a newspaper. "The main story covers the who, what, where, why, and when, and the sidebar offers analysis, color, some detail that you couldn't get into in the main story," he says.

Such offerings are essential, he says, if the "Evening News" wants to compete in a crowded news environment.

"If the evening newses are going to survive – and I'm talking about all of them, not just us – they have to evolve beyond what they have been. If all we're going to do is put on a minute and a half piece that's the same as the minute and a half piece that's been running on cable all day, we're not going to make it." He says the question and answer exchange with correspondents, which fall somewhere between straight reporting and cable news-style editorializing, makes for content that sets the "Evening News" apart.

Linda Mason, CBS News Senior Vice President, Standards and Special Projects, points to a section of the CBS News standards, which are now being updated and revised, that addresses the issue:

CBS News has no positions to advance or to promote in its news broadcasts. Therefore, editorializing – that is, advocating a course of action – is not allowed, but news analysis and commentary are permitted, provided such material is properly identified and not confused with straight news reporting.

CBS News correspondents may not express personal opinions in news reports. However, they may express their personal opinions about a report on a news development if asked to do so by an anchor on a news or magazine broadcast or in a roundtable discussion, as long as it is clearly recognized that what is said is the reporter's personal opinion.

"We figure that the viewer, when they see a correspondent being asked a question, understand that it's her opinion that's being asked for," says Mason. "So for Attkisson to give an opinion in response to [Bob Schieffer's] question is fine. But in the piece it would have been wrong for her to give her opinion."

An interesting sidebar of our own: Schieffer says the questions he asks during the broadcast are spontaneous. "Sometimes a correspondent will call or send an email and say 'I didn't have time to put this in a piece' because they want me to ask them about it," he says. "And sometimes I do. But there are no guarantees."