Fairness is more than just equity

Among this quarter’s questions about graduate student unionization, the future of the Minnesota Student Association and the renovation of Coffman Union, I’m swamped with opinions, letters and phone calls. Although I welcome the feedback, this is a good time to investigate the concept of “fairness.”
I’m most concerned about the Daily’s fairness in my position as readers’ representative. We can publish a correction if we make a simple factual or spelling error; we cannot — and we should not — deal with allegations of unfairness so quickly.
Fairness can be a slippery concept. Sometimes a newspaper has to make hard choices to be fair to its readers. An example: In 1991 David Duke, a white supremacist, ran for governor of Louisiana. The New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayune, decided to cover the gubernatorial candidate as “the approach of a hurricane.” Reporters delved into every possible detail of Duke’s racist background, including his neo-Nazi activities, and made it very clear to the voters of Louisiana just what they would get if they elected Duke.
In a series of editorials against Duke, titled “The Choice of Our Lives,” the Times-Picayune noted, “Like it or not, the days since the October primary have established Mr. Duke as a national symbol of racial hatred and division,” and concluded, “We cannot sit idly by” and endorsed Edwin Edwards for governor. The staff members of the Times-Picayune believed they had to be activist in this particular election because they feared the result should Duke be elected.
After Duke’s defeat, the paper came under attack from some critics, but the staff stood its ground. One editor said before the election that he would leave the state if Duke were elected.
Whether or not you agree with the Times-Picayune’s decision — and some do not — those reporters and editors felt that they had a responsibility to the public to share all details about Duke’s past. This close scrutiny constituted the only way they believed they could be fair to Louisiana voters.
What does it mean when a reader urges the Daily to be fair? Sometimes representatives of one side of a controversy believe their side hasn’t received equal space in the pages of the Daily. Or sometimes the coverage, while equitable in amount, hasn’t adequately explained one side’s position. We take these concerns equally seriously. As I’ve noted in previous columns, I do try to see to it that the letters column contains all sides of a dispute of University-wide importance. But because I don’t solicit letters if I don’t receive them, it’s the job of the reporters to make sure events and controversies deserving in-depth coverage get that attention.
The Daily doesn’t often receive serious accusations of unfairness. When we do, we take them very seriously. Recently I got a call from Andrew Seligsohn, a graduate student in political science and a representative of the Gradute Students Organizing Congress. He claimed that the letters column showed some imbalance in choice of letters against unionization. He was concerned that a letter supporting the union hadn’t seen print. Again, as I noted before, I can’t possibly print every single letter I get. But a review of recent letters columns gave some support to his claim. I had planned to run the letter about which he had expressed concern the next day, and this balanced out the perceived discrepancy to both his satisfaction and mine.
So fairness doesn’t necessarily mean column-inch equality. Then what does it mean? I have a working definition: If a reader, looking at a representative number of issues of the Daily, can describe the basics of both sides of a debate, then the coverage is reasonably fair. Thus, for example, if a reader could explain both sides of the graduate student unionization controversy after having reviewed a few issues that covered the matter, we’ve made a good start toward fairness. We should provide sufficient background for readers to make up their own minds. This is a simplistic measure, because it doesn’t take into account the amount of coverage each side of a controversy receives (that would be an indication of bias), but it’s one way to consider fairness in the abstract.
The disputes faced by GradSOC, Coffman and MSA are essential for the University community to discuss, debate and decide. Today I’ve elected to run additional letters about these University concerns as an accompaniment to my column. We will continue to provide coverage of these disputes that is as “fair” as possible, and you should continue to let us know how we’re doing.

Genelle Belmas’ column appears every other Friday. She welcomes comments via e-mail at [email protected] or by phone at 627-4070 ext. 3282.