Last week, a reader wrote to complain that our reporting on the Tacoma teachers’ strike was so biased against teachers and their union, she had to quit reading.
On the same day, our customer service department notified us that a subscriber quit because our stories about the Tacoma teachers strike were running on the front page – proof of our liberal bias, presumably in favor of teachers.
Then came this message from customer service: “(Customer) is not happy about the negative article regarding teachers’ strike in Tacoma.” We’re left to guess in what way it was “negative.”
That put into quick context a nationwide report released Thursday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. It found that 77 percent of respondents think news organizations tend to favor one side when covering political and social issues. That percentage has grown steadily in the 25 years Pew has studied it, up from 53 percent in 1985.
According to Pew, people might base that impression more on cable and national news. Trust factors were higher for local news organizations. While more Republicans traditionally have found the news biased, since President Barack Obama took office, Democrats have grown almost equally skeptical.
The report is frustrating to those of us working to accurately and fairly report the news.
No story is completely free from bias. Each is conceived of by a human being with a lifetime of experiences and opinions that affect how he or she approaches it. We are trained to represent all parties around an issue – beyond a simple he-said, she-said whenever possible. Reporters with a strong bias or close connection are expected to declare it and step away from a story. Each story is reviewed by at least two editors who are on the lookout for bias, along with grammatical or structural problems.
Even after publication, at our morning news critique, we’ll sometimes spot bias creeping in and talk about how to remedy it. Last week, we questioned whether it was fair to run pictures day after day of teachers on the picket line, providing visual coverage of only one side. We moved toward more pictures that showed both sides in the courtroom or the governor’s office.
We set aside roughly two pages a day explicitly for opinion pieces. That also gets us into trouble. Readers frequently threaten to drop the paper if we don’t cancel a columnist whose opinions they hate. We purposely include differing viewpoints to expose readers to opinions they can agree with and those different from their own. We think that leads to a healthy community conversation.
Our editorial board – separate from the news staff – offers opinions, as well. The board’s long-term intent is to advocate in ways that make this a better place to live. Many newspapers in recent years have stopped writing editorials, in part because they can anger readers to the point of canceling a subscription. The tension becomes particularly nasty around election time. We have no plans to stop editorializing, but we certainly understand that not everyone will agree with us.
The Pew study focused on how readers perceive the news, but it didn’t study another phenomenon that’s occurred over the past 25 years.
More and more, readers come to us expecting to see their own bias reflected in stories. They want us to mirror “news” they’re seeing on cable or radio talk shows. The Internet also has provided a platform for so many commentators, people easily can find a voice to tell them exactly what they want to hear. We call that “journalism of affirmation,” and it’s not the business we’re in.
If you spot what you believe is bias in a news story, please let us know. If you’d like to attend a daily meeting where we talk about coverage, send me an email.
Karen Peterson: 253-597-8434