Tuesday, 10 April 2007

Opinion shift passes quietly

From the Public Editor
Timothy J. McNulty

Timothy J. McNulty

Opinion shift passes quietly

Published April 10, 2007

Individuals change their minds often, but a change of mind for a newspaper's editorial position, especially one that has stood since at least 1869, is far less common.

When the Tribune's editorial board came out in opposition to the death penalty three weeks ago, the newspaper might have expected a rise out of readers and politicians previously aligned with traditional thinking that favored capital punishment.

"The evidence of recent years argues that it is necessary to curb the government's power," the editorial declared, overturning its previous arguments. "It is time to abolish the death penalty."

There was barely a ripple, a few heartfelt letters to the editor, a few calls, and almost all accepting and welcoming the new attitude.

Abolition of the death penalty isn't on the political radar at the moment, and if any readers were surprised, they may have assumed the newspaper already opposed the death penalty. Eight years ago, reporters Maurice Possley, Steve Mills and Ken Armstrong began detailing the abuses, and their reporting led then-Gov. George Ryan to impose a death-penalty moratorium in 2000. Gov. Rod Blagojevich has maintained it since.

Tribune writers continue to lead on national stories about death-penalty abuses. Cornelia Grumman, an editorial writer, won the Pulitzer Prize for her series of editorials on the injustice of the death penalty.

While here and in other states the same arguments are put forward by both sides of the debate, the Tribune's editorial board looked at them afresh, but also with the overwhelming evidence that the death penalty is not applied fairly and is too open to mistakes that cost innocent lives.

Timothy J. McNulty is the Tribune's public editor. He listens to readers' concerns about the paper's coverage and writes periodically about journalism issues. His e-mail address is tmcnulty@tribune.com. The views expressed are his own.

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