Daily’s union coverage is unbiased

Note: Erik Ugland is a graduate student who remains undecided on the graduate assistant union.

Whatever truth there is to the claim that University students are uninterested in campus politics, there has been little evidence of it in the debate over the proposed graduate assistants’ union. For several months, students on both sides of this battle have engaged in an energetic, and sometimes caustic, debate about the promises and perils of unionization.
As the date for a vote draws closer (voting cards will be sent out Friday), the campaigns have grown more aggressive and the rhetoric more furious. Supporters and opponents of the union have gone back and forth recently, each accusing the other of distortions and other mischief.
Caught in the middle of this fracas is The Minnesota Daily, which has been accused of bias in its coverage of the debate and has been flooded with letters on the issue. Perhaps the Daily’s staff can take some comfort in the fact that accusations have come from people on both sides. Still, charges of bias are potent and have to be taken seriously.
Being accused of bias is nothing new for the Daily, nor for any other news organization. Critics and partisans of all stripes routinely attack the news media. Conservatives blast journalists for being liberal boosters; liberals brand journalists as agents of the status quo. But the ubiquity of these general critiques does not diminish the sting journalists feel when charges are made about their coverage of particular stories.
Readers will justifiably argue that many journalists are biased, and even those who are not overtly so are still subtly affected by their personal predispositions. Even those able to control their predispositions are still subject to the distorting influences of sources, public opinion and other forces.
With these things in mind, and in anticipation of the upcoming vote on unionization, I decided to look back on the Daily’s coverage of this story to see if there was any evidence to support the accusations of bias. Starting with the first issue of winter quarter (Jan. 4), I reviewed every edition of the paper through last Friday, examining all news stories, letters to the editor, editorials and columns.
Since Jan. 4, the Daily has published 11 news stories on the union debate. Each was written by the same reporter, Kelly Hildebrandt, an undergraduate student with no immediate stake in the union vote. Nothing in any of the 11 news stories suggested to me evidence of favoritism or imbalance. In fact, all the stories were very well balanced, and each included quoted opinions from principal figures on both sides of the issue and in roughly equal amounts. There was one exception (Jan. 11), but it was a story focusing more on the procedures for securing a vote than on the substance of the underlying debate.
One could argue that the union stories did not include enough quotes from graduate students not affiliated with the Graduate Student Organizing Congress, the Graduate Students Against Unionization or other organizations, but any claim that the Daily’s news coverage has favored one faction or the other is not, in my opinion, valid.
In addition to the Daily’s news coverage, I also looked at the letters and opinions sections to see if there were any inequities in the amount of space devoted to pro- vs. anti-union opinions. Since Jan. 4, there have been two opinion pieces published in favor of the union and two against. There was also one staff-written column favoring the union. In the letters section, there was an even split, with nine letters for the union and nine against.
Of course, this crude checklist approach is not a precise measure of fairness. Readers need to make their own assessments and to engage in more subtle analyses. But my little bit of research was enough to satisfy me that the staff of the Daily has not sabotaged or ignored the positions of any group involved in the debate.
This does not mean that the staff of the Daily is indifferent. Its editorial board has published two editorials. One (Jan. 4) called for a wider debate on the union issue. The other (Apr. 7) opposed the creation of the union, but that editorial opinion — whether shared by the rest of the staff or not — does not appear to have seeped into the Daily’s news pages.
Despite this conclusion, the staff of the Daily needs to exercise extra care in its coverage and general treatment of the union issue as the debate peaks in the next few weeks. At the same time, readers of the Daily need to be especially wary of the claims made by people on all sides of this issue and continue to monitor the Daily’s coverage.
The union debate has agitated some people on campus and created a volatile environment, which will present a number of challenges to the Daily and its readers. Below are just a few points to consider as the union vote approaches.
To the staff of the Daily:
ù Scrupulously document facts, knowing that misinformation and hyperbole will abound.
ù Challenge and verify assertions made by advocates and seek countering opinions for all key claims.
ù Provide as much balance as possible in the use of sources, without neutering stories.
ù Involve as many relevant voices as possible.
ù Provide proportional, though not necessarily equal, space on the editorial and opinions pages.
ù Welcome even the coarsest critiques.
To the readers of the Daily:
ù Monitor the Daily for fairness.
ù Disassociate the statements of sources with the beliefs of reporters.
ù Understand that the opinions of the Daily’s editorial board do not guide nor shape its news coverage.
ù Look beyond single quotes, and even single news stories, when making assessments of fairness and balance.
ù Seek information from the widest possible range of sources and media.
ù Write to the Daily, whether for publication or not, with your thoughts on its coverage.
As the deadline for the union vote approaches, the passions of those on both sides of the issue will no doubt be ignited. The challenge for the Daily will be to provide a neutral account of the debate and a neutral forum for discussion. The challenge for readers will be to scrutinize the Daily’s efforts without losing perspective.
Erik Ugland is the Daily’s readers’ representative. His column appears alternate Mondays. He welcomes comments about the Daily or his column to [email protected]