Playing Favorites?  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   January/February 2001

Playing Favorites?   

As usual, there were howls of biased coverage during the 2000 presidential campaign. But often the tone was set by the actual dynamics of the race--and the ubiquitous polls.

By Sharyn Vane
Sharyn Vane has written and edited at papers in Colorado, Florida and Texas.      

Related reading:
   » Defying Election Law
   » Failing Grade
   » How They Blew It
   » Polled Enough for Ya?
   » Palm Beach Follies
   » Stop the Madness
   » Raise Your Right Hand


SCENES FROM A TERRIBLY, terribly divisive November:
U.S. Rep. Billy Tauzin, a Louisiana Republican, charges that early network projections awarding Florida to Democrat Al Gore were rooted in a "disturbing...probable bias" that discouraged Republicans from voting in the West and ultimately influenced the election. Tauzin says he'll call congressional hearings to uncover the truth.
The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, in a widely reported incident, pulls all photos of Gore from its Election Day edition and reworks an Associated Press story to downplay mentions of the Democratic nominee--on orders from "publisher and longtime conservative activist Richard Mellon Scaife," as the rival Pittsburgh Post-Gazette put it.
And finally, this, an excerpted exchange from the letters page on Jim Romenesko's journalism Web site (poynter.org/medianews):
Welcome New England Publisher Jonathan Lhowe: "The Providence Journal on election day first ran side by side front page photos of George W. Bush and Al Gore. Bush's photo has him outlined by a halo created by backlighting, and Gore was presented using an extremely unflattering photo of him sweating and looking snaggletoothed. Later in the day the front page was replated using a fairer picture of Gore. Bush still has his halo. Questions: What is the story about these photos and replating the front page? Is (the Texas-based ProJo owner) Belo commanding this type of front page play or are editors and management at the ProJo trying to curry favor with their Texan overlords?"
And the response: "Dear Jonathan, As the picture editor and designer of that day's front page AND A BIG TIME GORE SUPPORTER, I think you need to know what happened that night, since you clearly have some of the facts wrong. First, the replate happened between first and second editions, after I realized (stupid me) that the nice pic I had chosen of Gore was from a Sunday event. Unfortunately, that photo moved during the middle of the daily cycle, along with the other Monday pix. It would have been wrong to keep that image on the page throughout the run. Secondly, if you read the story about Gore's final push, you would have realized that his intensity and determination (and physical state) during the last 40 hours of the campaign, were his red badge of courage, as it were, AND THE STORY. I thought the photo showed that. (Remember, I really like the guy!!!!!!!) As for the haloed Bush, it happened to be the best tight shot of him, vis--vis the layout with the earlier photo of Gore. Now hear this: NO ONE DICTATES WHAT PICTURES WE RUN IN THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL. I am proud that the only rules we follow are those based on honest, fair, and accurate journalism.... Sincerely, Babette G. Augustin"
And all of that Sturm und Drang doesn't even begin to take into account what the regular readers thought of the coverage.
Perceptions of journalistic bias are as much a part of the fabric of the business as deadlines, but they are particularly intense during presidential campaigns, when the focus on the horse race transforms much news coverage into a stark juxtaposition of winners and losers. With so many readers having a stake in what's being covered, they tend to pay more attention to whether the newspaper they read or the broadcast they watch or listen to has done its job in a way they deem appropriate (read: given their candidate a fair shake).
Even journalists themselves don't rail too hard at the assertion that most newsrooms are heavily populated by liberal Democrats. But that doesn't mean that their stories are slanted. For many reporters, personal ideology is far less important than the pursuit of the good story, regardless of whom it helps or hurts. A much-hyped poll commissioned by the Freedom Forum in the mid-1990s found that an overwhelmingly large percentage--89 percent--of Washington correspondents surveyed had voted for Bill Clinton in 1992. That didn't stop them from giving relentlessly tough treatment to the Clinton administration, well before Monica Lewinsky came to the fore.
The question of bias isn't just about politics, though. Our newsrooms are heavily middle-class, largely white and still primarily male (although the gender gap is narrowing). Isn't this likely to have a major impact on how news is presented? And don't forget the oh-so-subtle biases that creep in when a reporter goes back to the same old folks for quotes story after story, whether because of efficiency or just plain laziness.
Journalists learn in school or on their first jobs that objectivity is the foundation upon which their professional reputations rest. More than ever before, ombudsmen, public editors, reader representatives--and top honchos--watch their colleagues to ensure that, wherever possible, bias or the appearance of it is eliminated. To be sure, there are a few places where coverage has a bit of a tilt. Consider the Washington Times' headlines on stories about the candidates' appearances on "Oprah"--"Bush opens up to Oprah with humor, candor," as compared with "Oprah's softballs allow Gore to score." On balance, though, far more newsrooms occupy a great deal of time and energy trying to be as fair as possible.
Still, year after year--and election cycle after election cycle--the issue of bias continues to surface industrywide, even if the facts often don't support readers' charges. Why haven't newsrooms been able to break free of such suspicions?

"OH SURE," SAYS Dennis Foley, ombudsman of the Orange County Register, when asked if he deals with more complaints about political coverage during the election season. "I believe people are paying more attention, and particularly people with strong convictions. When they see stories in the paper, what they're looking for is impartiality or neutrality of stories, of topics of stories, of word choice, of photos, of headlines on stories. They're very sensitive to the presentation of the candidates, even down to the mug shots, the larger font size on certain headlines."
An election tends to bring allegations of bias into sharper focus. When readers want their candidates to win, they're really on the lookout for anything that might derail them--whether that's a story on the front page that they think ought to be a brief (or not covered at all), or the photo that shows their candidate in what they think is an unflattering light.
What are their biggest complaints?
"Oh my God, photos are suspect. I think looking back at this fall campaign that photos might be the single most commented-upon aspect of news reporting in this presidential election," says Dan Hortsch, public editor at Portland's Oregonian. "And, of course, we can have two photos of Bush and Gore and get complaints from both sides. Sometimes, I'll think the photos are really good, and we'll get complaints. There was one of Gore on a fire truck; we ran it and so did the New York Times, I think, and I thought he looked very good and pumped up and man-of-the-people kind of thing. And people called and said, 'Oh, it looked like he was falling off the truck and you were making fun of him.' Even since the election we have been getting complaints. We had one day when we had a shot of Bush looking somber, with a towel around his neck--he'd been out running--and Gore was smiling and looking up. A caller said Bush was looking too somber and morose, while Gore looked like he was winning the race. And that didn't reflect his reality."
At the Orange County Register, as of mid-November, Foley had found cause twice to run what he calls "content audits": an exhaustive examination of stories, headlines, photos and story play during a specific period. "The most recent one was [triggered by a call] saying, 'You've been running a lot of photos of Al Gore, and they look very presidential. You run some with Bush, and you catch him with a grimace on his face, which doesn't look very attractive.... That suggests to us that you're deliberately choosing a picture that doesn't make him look very good.' "
So Foley looked at all the photos the Register had run over a 14-day period before the call. He found 22 photos of Bush and 21 of Gore, and in almost every case the photos had equal weight and placement and expressions. "One day there was sort of a squashed mug of Gore that looked hideous, in my opinion, and then the next day there was a mug of Bush that looked squashed and hideous," Foley says.
"Because they [the complainers] are partisan, they'll say, 'Oh, I don't believe it.' Well, that's what ran in the paper; you simply choose to see it a different way. Who's really displaying a bias here?"
Which isn't to say that as long as journalists have a good reason for doing something, it's OK. Foley says he's told his colleagues in the newsroom that while he understands the concept of evenness over time--the idea that one candidate may get good press or bad press on a specific day, but it all balances out over a week or month--they need to realize that readers won't necessarily define "fair reporting" the same way.
"All I'm saying is that the first day you've made the Republicans think you're biased, and the next day the Democrats think you're biased.... We may have presented it in a way that suggested to readers that we were uneven. In a way we created a situation in which we created an appearance of a bias. That's a very harsh thing to say to a journalist, and it sometimes gets rejected."
Still, most newsrooms are acutely attuned to the dangers of having a perceived bias. (Think about how many papers' front pages had dueling portraits of Bush and Gore in their mid-November editions, when it became clear a winner would not be named for some time.) Gloria Irwin, public editor at Ohio's Akron Beacon Journal, says about a week after Election Day, one of the paper's morning news meetings focused on the tenor of the front-page headlines.
"The follow-up heads have focused too much on Bush in a negative way, and the managing editor alerted the copy desk to be a little more watchful in the phrasing of the headlines," Irwin says. "The head today says, 'Bush says 'No' to deal.' Some of this is a matter of what somebody reads into it, but it does subconsciously indicate that he's turning down something good." She adds, "I don't think it's anything that they've done deliberately."
Another flash point for readers is news analysis. Whether on the front page or inside the A section, many readers are confused, not to say troubled, by attempts to put the campaign's latest developments into context, editors say. It's an increasingly common variation on the difficulties many readers have in distinguishing between op-eds and news stories.
Readers "don't see that difference or think that analysis of any kind belongs on the news pages," says the Oregonian's Hortsch. "Of course, we hear less from people who appreciate things; I think there are people who appreciate background and context. But I don't know how we can make that difference [between analysis and straight news] a little more obvious. Actually, I don't always see it myself, until I look up and notice that what I'm reading is labeled that way."
This isn't a dilemma just for newspapers. Jeffrey Dvorkin, ombudsman at National Public Radio, says the proliferation of talking heads and the blurring of boundaries between reporters and pundits has only added to the confusion. "As news organizations diminish the value of pure reporting and raise the value of the bloviating pundits on the radio or the television or in print, we create a problem."

PUNDITRY, FRONT-PAGE NEWS analysis and unflattering photos aren't the only factors that spur the bias police into action. What sometimes looks like blatant favoritism, particularly to an aggrieved true believer, is often the political pack's devotion to the conventional wisdom or the story line du jour. Before Gore chose Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman as his running mate during the summer, he was, in a word, a loser as far as the media were concerned. Lacking the down-home, straight-talking Texan appeal of George W., not to mention the magnetism of Bill Clinton, Gore was painted as a wooden policy wonk who had to listen to the likes of "controversial" or "bimbo" feminist Naomi Wolf to liven himself up. Indeed, at times his daughter Karenna easily outpaced her father as the Gore family media darling.
Then, Gore did two things--he presented himself well at the Democratic National Convention, and he picked Lieberman as his running mate. The vice president rose rapidly in the ubiquitous polls--and in the estimation of the national press. But as Gore began to be portrayed as an attractive, effective candidate, Bush started seeing coverage of his not-so-subliminable gaffes as his fortunes plummeted. When he agreed to debate Gore after weeks of kvetching about the format, Bush's turnabout was painted in extremely negative terms. It was "a surrender," maintained the Wall Street Journal. The New York Times called it "a wholesale retreat."
The roller coaster ride was far from over. When Bush's campaign took off after he surprisingly "won" the debates, Gore returned to Loserville as far as the press was concerned. Gore came across as an overly aggressive know-it-all in the first debate. Then, reeling from his bad notices, he was stunningly passive during the second. The inevitable bad press that followed reflected not a tilt toward the Texan but the realities of the campaign. This is a frequent phenomenon: A candidate encounters a rough patch, the news media report on it, often extensively, and the true believers are outraged by the "prejudiced" reporting.
"The press is often akin to a schoolyard bully," Larry Sabato, professor of political science at the University of Virginia and quotemeister par excellence, told the Los Angeles Times in September. "It kicks people when they're down and doles out rough justice to both sides if it can."
One way of attacking the "are we fair?" question is to refocus reporting away from the horse race and toward the actual issues, says Orange County's Foley. Centering political coverage on the ups and downs of the campaign is a surefire way, he notes, of having the issue of bias against one candidate or another come up again, and again, and again.
"I don't see a lot of left tilt," he says. "What I see is we focus on the conflict and who said what today and who's ahead in the horse race.... It's really all about winning and losing."

NEW NEWSROOM EMPLOYEES would argue with the need to fairly and accurately report the news. But just how far do journalists have to go to eliminate the possible appearance of partisanship?
Leonard Downie Jr., executive editor of the Washington Post, put it this way in an October piece on the Post's op-ed page: "As I am often reminded, journalists are people, too. They cannot be expected to cleanse their minds of human emotions and reactions to highly charged political campaigns or controversial issues. But we do ask Washington Post reporters and editors to come as close as possible to doing just that.
"In my own case, as some know, I no longer exercise my right to vote. As the final decision-maker on news coverage in the Post, I refuse to decide, even privately, which candidate would make the better president or member of the city council, or what position I would take on any issue. I want my mind to remain entirely open to all sides and possibilities."
And of this high-minded ideal, much merriment was made at the online magazine Slate. "For Downie to say that he keeps his mind empty of opinions is like me expecting you to keep your mind devoid of white when I say, 'Don't think of snow,' " quips Jack Shafer, a media columnist and deputy editor at Slate and former editor of the Washington City Paper. Former Post writer William Powers, now at National Journal, went further in an e-mail posted on Slate, calling Downie's views "one of our trade's biggest jokes. Nobody inside or outside the Washington Post, where I worked for years, buys into this or even takes it seriously."
Downie responds: "Regarding Shafer, I never said I don't have opinions. But I refuse to reach final judgments in my mind on political candidates or important issues so that I am always open to new, offsetting information. That is why I don't vote. It is telling in this cynical time that people who make their living expressing opinions, as Shafer and Powers do, cannot understand or believe my straightforward position. Regarding Powers, we all take our work and each other seriously here. Perhaps that's why he left."
Shafer, meanwhile, has his own radical proposal. "We have a culture of full disclosure," Shafer says. "We expect politicians to disclose their health; we expect politicians to let us know about their portfolios. I'm saying voluntarily, why shouldn't reporters say who they're voting for?"
Shafer, who voted for Libertarian Harry Browne, declared "the god of objectivity is dead" in a column posted the day before the election in which he announced that he planned to survey the voting preferences of political journalists. He contacted 33 notables, among them CBS' Dan Rather, NBC's Tim Russert, the New York Times' Frank Bruni and The New Yorker's Joe Klein.
Nobody fessed up.
"None of your beeswax, you nosey parker," offered New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd. Reporter Bob Davis of the Wall Street Journal declined with an apology, stating, in part, "I cover these guys.... There's already enough suspicion of reporters generally and the Wall Street Journal in particular among political types."
Shafer argues that revealing reporters' predilections is valuable for a couple of reasons. One, it acknowledges that journalists actually have opinions, which is part of how they do their jobs, he says--finding the data and evidence to support hunches and suppositions. In his view, revealing where reporters are coming from allows readers to best evaluate their work. What's more, being aware that everyone knows you're a Democrat might make you extra-careful in reporting on a political race, Shafer says.
Those who disagree build on Davis' point: Readers already think we're all biased in favor of this, that, or the other thing. Why add fuel to the fire? "I think it's irrelevant," says NPR's Dvorkin. "And frankly, I think it undervalues real journalism by stating that professional values are deformed by people's personal politics, when in fact they may have nothing to do with covering a story."
"I don't think so," says Marvin Lake, public editor of Norfolk's Virginian-Pilot, of the notion of revealing journalists' political leanings. "Once you come up and go on the record, then all of a sudden everything you do is viewed through the lens of that political affiliation. If I'm covering religion, do I need to tell people I'm a Baptist?"

STILL, THAT SLIPPERY SLOPE Lake refers to--evoking reporters' taglines that feature their marital status, religion and recycling preferences along with their phone number and e-mail address--opens up a whole new arena of bias and what it means. From the decisions made by editors on story length and play to the sources reporters call to interview and quote in their stories, putting together a news report is subject to a wide array of decisions that change what's reported.
Consider the common complaints aimed at NPR. "We get calls saying that we overcover poor people and homeless people and people of color, that we are too concerned with issues on the coasts and the big cities," says Dvorkin. "And I think, to a certain extent, that's true. NPR began in the big cities.... We are bicoastal in extremis. But we're getting better. We have more reporters in more cities than we ever have, and we get [reports from] cities from more member stations. But if we are biased in a way, we have a strong predilection to the issues of big cities, and I think we don't do as good a job covering rural America and small-town America as we could have."
In political reporting, journalists are often rapped for inserting what readers perceive as opinion. Yet in Akron, Gloria Irwin has found that some social-issues reporting has left conservative readers clamoring for more of a slant.
"I think what some people see as bias on our part is the neutrality of the news report. They want to see in a story about teen pregnancy some kind of statement that this is wrong.... They see it as very liberal, they see it as if we're saying that it's fine, that teenage pregnancy is OK. They see it as being a sympathetic look at the issue."
Where the discussion becomes more difficult is when you start talking about much more subtle differences in the filters each staffer brings to the newsroom. "Let's say I went to an Ivy League prep school and then I went off to Yale. Joe Blow went to a school in an inner-city housing project and then a public college," hypothesizes Marvin Lake. "It's reasonable to expect that on a lot of things we're going to see it differently. That is one of the beauties of having a diverse newsroom. I may look at something and see a great story. I may look at it and see no story. But Joe Blow will. That's what you have to be careful about, is potentially dismissing a great story because you don't see the story."
As Lake and others point out, discussions on diversity tend to parallel discussions on eliminating bias. With enough diversity of staff--diversity of opinion as well as demographics--individual tendencies toward bias tend to be balanced out throughout the newsroom. And in the same way that most newsrooms have come to put a premium on giving minorities a wide variety of assignments--rather than ghettoizing them in so-called "minority issue" beats--eliminating bias could also mean diversifying the old Rolodex.
"Too often we talk to the same people," Lake says. "If we talk to the same people, we'll hear the same thing. We talk to sources and they become our regular sources. The result is that you don't have that diversity of viewpoint in terms of what's said. If I want the 'black' viewpoint, I keep going to the head of the NAACP, who may or may not represent the diversity of thought among black readers."
Since journalists are presumed to have some reasoning ability, as well as common sense, that shouldn't happen too frequently. But too often in the frazzle of deadline reporting, what's easiest takes over.

REVEAL OUR POLITICALeveal our political affiliations? Change the way we report? There's a whole laundry list of things that journalists could do to address the issue of bias that's out there amongst, as Slate's Shafer puts it, "civilians." What's key is to be aware that journalism is being judged every day by people who know nothing of the unreturned phone calls and the desperate decisions made just before deadline--those things that result in a slightly skewed front page, even though no one intended it to be that way.
"I think the people who claim bias probably do have an interest of their own in how things turn out. They're bringing their own perspective to our work, too," says the Register's Foley.
"It doesn't mean they don't have a point."

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