The Daily’s election coverage

Daily reporters and editors need to ratchet up their attention to bias in the coming weeks.

Attack ads, weekly campaign stops, surrogate visits and never-ending political spin. As Minnesota is bombarded with millions of dollars in advertising and an intense, well-planned strategy from both sides to get consistent and favorable media coverage, what is a newspaper’s responsibility to its readers? How can any newspaper remain unbiased in this environment?

As the largest all-student-run newspaper in the country, at the second-largest undergraduate institution – in a swing state nonetheless – The Minnesota Daily has a hefty obligation this election season to bring its readers fair, balanced and comprehensive reporting.

The Daily’s editors and reporters have poured hours of thought, planning and analysis into what gets covered and how. In fact, Editor in Chief Jake Weyer and managing editor Emily Johns came up with a framework for political and presidential coverage months ago, with the goal of providing “the most comprehensive coverage … in a way that mattered to students.” In addition to a voter guide and a pollster tracking student opinions, Weyer and Johns scheduled weekly issue pieces and a standard that only candidate visits in the metro area and surrogates on campus (such as family members or administration officials) will be covered. Day-to-day decisions about political stories are not, as some presume, chosen on the fly by reporters and editors looking to push their own agendas.

Pam Johnson, a member of the leadership faculty at the Poynter Institute on journalism and former executive editor and senior vice president at the Arizona Republic, said Daily editors have taken the right steps toward fairness – but added that constant scrutiny is essential.

“The goal ought to be that there is balanced and fair matching of coverage,” Johnson said. “You may have a good set of standards … but they should go to whatever distance it takes to keep the coverage balanced.”

Johns said she is committed to doing just that – even when it means sending reporters hours away to cover a candidate who hasn’t visited the metro area often enough.

“It’s our job to get different viewpoints,” Johns said. “If we have to travel … we have to.”

But media bias can creep into coverage in other ways. Word choice, headlines and even photos can taint coverage and affect the way a candidate is perceived. In a newsroom admittedly populated mostly by liberals, is the Daily doing enough to keep its readers informed about all candidates without slant?

As one astute reader recently noted, “159 words were dedicated to the criticism of (President George W. Bush) in the story that covered the president’s visit to (Chanhassen, Minn.) … not a single word of criticism was printed in the story that reported on (Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. John) Edward’s visit … Was there not a single person … the reporter could find to give criticism of Edwards?”

Political reporter Kari Petrie said both she and her counterpart, Stephanie Kudrle, do everything in their power to keep each story balanced. They contact neutral experts, such as professors who can comment on the candidates’ proposals, work to get diverse viewpoints in each story and talk regularly with each political party. But, Petrie said, “we don’t always do that with event coverage, because it gets to be a lot.”

Johnson said the Daily can avoid this trap if it focuses more on issues and less on visits. The Daily, she said, should not be afraid to print wire stories about events if it means running original content on the issues.

“The campaign appearances are not what is at stake … it’s where the people stand,” Johnson said.

Johnson said that, if the paper does fall into shallow event coverage that regurgitates the candidates’ stump speeches, it can quickly lead to the perception of bias.

“If you just tell me this (issue stance) without putting it in context … and then your editorial board pushes one of the views, then that’s going to be suspect,” Johnson said.

But both Johns and Weyer said their reporters are doing as good a job as possible to convey unbiased information to students.

“We’re writing about what really matters,” Johns said. “And we try really hard to make it balanced.”

Weyer said, “If we ever decide that our coverage is getting slanted, we’ll sit down and look at what we can do about it.”

While, Johnson said, Daily editors are ahead of the curve when it comes to fairness, there is still room for improvement. The Daily needs to be wary of falling prey to “exclusive interviews” and disproportionate attention from the Democratic Party, which has been more cooperative than the Bush campaign with giving reporters access and information.

While a newspaper will never please everyone, Daily reporters and editors need to ratchet up their attention to bias – real or perceived – in the coming weeks. Daily readers deserve as much straightforward information as possible when they are walking into the voting booth – and the Daily should do everything in its power to continue to provide it.

Libby George is The Minnesota Daily’s readers’ representative and, as such, acts as the Daily’s ombudsman. She writes periodic columns analyzing and commenting on the Daily’s coverage. George is independent of the newsroom and welcomes readers’ comments about the Daily’s content, or its absence, at [email protected]