What you see can depend on what you’re looking for, and in this time of virulence on both sides of the Trump divide, a lot of people are seeing bias in the media, including the “Times-Union.”
And before you accuse me of bias because of my use of “virulence,” I claim truth as a defense because my dictionary says it means “venomous hostility” or “intense sharpness of temper.”
I felt a lot of that as we read more than 80 emails in response to my request for our readers to look for political bias in our news coverage. Some careful readers sent more than one, and some emails contained more than one example of perceived bias.
I had promised you that “Times-Union” journalists, like those of most mainstream newspapers, adhere to a code of ethics that demands accuracy, fairness and impartiality.
In challenging our fidelity to that, some readers saw a conservative bias in our news coverage, though the great majority complained of liberal bias — even in a newspaper whose editorial page philosophy is decidedly center-right and whose owners endorsed President Trump.
To evaluate the allegations, I conferred with editor Mary Kelli Palka, who oversees news coverage, and two of her deputies, interim managing editor Clay Zeigler and assistant managing editor Carole Fader, as well as editorial page editor Mike Clark. We challenged ourselves to be as objective as possible and avoid defensiveness. For the stories involving The Associated Press, I also asked John Daniszewski, vice president for standards of the AP, for his assessments.
Here’s my evaluation of the most substantial or recurring observations of bias over the past couple of weeks:
Guilt by association
Reader Mike Wallace pointed to an AP report about a man’s shooting two Indian men in a Kansas bar, thinking they were Middle Easterners. The reporter wrote: “The shooting swiftly stoked fears about the treatment of immigrants, who feel targeted by President Donald Trump’s promises to ban certain travelers, build a wall along the Mexico border and put ‘America first.’”
Wallace said, “The AP tried, as it almost always does, to slant this tragic story so that somehow this was caused by President Trump or anyone else who believes that U.S. sovereignty is vital to our existence as a country.”
The reference to Trump was circumstantial, as there were no facts in the story tying the shooting to Trump’s immigration policies. The shooter could have been mentally ill.
Daniszewski of AP said, “The AP has reported about heightened anxieties in the immigrant community in response to the administration’s policies to restrict illegal immigration, and the story provided the context that the shootings had exacerbated fear among immigrants at a time when anxieties were already raised. The alleged shooter’s statement to the men to ‘get out of my country’ suggested the shooting was motivated in part by the shooter’s antipathy to outsiders in the United States.”
In several stories from Trump’s Mar-a-Lago, AP reporters referred to his “private estate,” his sitting on an ornate couch and speaking from “a luxurious living room.”
Reader Tom Ackerman said such characterizations amounted to “an attempt to create the impression that Trump is so rich he is out of touch or different than the average person.” Reader Chuck Boyd said they were “meant to, solely, in my opinion, foster wealth envy and division.”
Those characterizations were fair and appropriate, not only because Trump touts his wealth often but also because they gave the reader a feeling for the scene being reported. A good writer is taught to not only tell something but also to show the reader. Stories also have described Trump and other newsmakers speaking in airplane hangars, restaurants or military settings.
Daniszewski agreed: “We always try to show the settings of newsmakers to give readers a sense of place and context. That said, we have spoken to editors about avoiding unneeded references to President Trump’s wealth.”
Another story was headlined: “Trump bashed on response to anti-Semitic attacks.” It began: “Days after he declined to denounce anti-Semitism, President Donald Trump finally condemned the reported increase in anti-Semitism in the United States that has been linked to his political rise. But it wasn’t enough for some.”
“So,” wrote Ackerman, “the president does the proper thing. Immediately all the coverage is negative because he didn’t do it sooner or often enough.”
Reader Roy Laferriere called it a “thin-gruel wire story blaming DJT for recent outbreaks and reemergence of anti-Semitism with absolutely no evidence.”
Trump spoke out only after he was publicly criticized by Jewish and human-rights leaders who were named and quoted in the story. None blamed him for the outbreaks but only decried his not speaking out swiftly and firmly. One was quoted in the story: “The president of the United States must always be a voice against hate and for the values of religious freedom and inclusion that are the nation’s highest ideals.”
We had to report this criticism by the leaders. Or we could be accused of covering up for Trump.
Reader Derick Brundick called the story “a complete and total hit piece. NO where did the reporter state he (Trump) has Jewish daughter/son-in-law and grandchildren.”
That fact was not relevant in the story because, again, he was not being accused of anti-Semitism but rather of not speaking out or taking action after the incidents.
Trump’s two top aides, chief strategist Steve Bannon and chief of staff Reince Priebus, made a newsworthy appearance before the Conservative Political Action Conference Feb. 23, yet the “Times-Union” did not carry a story the next day, but did have a story about Democrats’ organizing their opposition.
Reader Jim Osbon criticized the difference: “Today … was a perfect time to mention CPAC, Steve Bannon and his role in guiding Trump, and VP Pence and his speech. … You had plenty of room to mention the misery of the Democrats and how they’re dealing with being out of power but nothing for the Republicans. Shame on you.”
Wire stories are selected on deadline by various editors, and whoever had the duty that night missed the CPAC story and should have selected it for publication. Yes, we did have room in the paper.
It is worth noting that Trump himself spoke to CPAC the next day, and that story made the front page. Readers should not expect that every edition will have a balance of coverage between Republicans and Democrats, since one side will make more news on most days than the other. Over time, however, readers can expect fairness and balance.
Reader William Rodriguez pointed out that Trump appeared at a major rally in Melbourne, and the “Times-Union” carried a “fairly bland” AP story and photo on page A-9. On the other hand, the next day, the T-U had a major story by staff writer Matt Soergel on the front page about the opposition movement being organized in Jacksonville. In that contrast, Rodriguez saw “a first-hand indication of biased reporting by the Times-Union.”
As you can see every day, we emphasize local news in the T-U because that is our primary responsibility as the only daily local newspaper. You can get all the national and international news you want online or on TV.
We rarely would invest a reporter’s time in travelling to a political rally elsewhere in the state; that’s what we pay wire services for, and that frees the T-U reporter to cover another, more local story here. The same is true for the play: Local stories generally are more important for Page 1 than national stories, with some obvious exceptions, not including a political rally.
I should also point out that Soergel’s story was also on the front page because it was not a daily news story but rather a larger, deeper look at how the opposition was organizing locally.
Photos and color vs. black and white
That Soergel story was accompanied by photographs, on the front page and on the inside page with the continuation of the story.
Reader Margaret Cutts: “Monday morning bright and early, there was a picture of local people protesting Trump — on the front page in color. Then there was a picture of the folks supporting Trump on page 7 in black and white. Is this bias? It looks like it to me. Both pictures were taken at the same event. Possibly they should both have been printed on the same page.”
Since the story was about the opposition organizing, we felt those photos belonged with the beginning of the story and the pro-Trump photos with the continuation of the story, where they were mentioned. At that particularly demonstration, the story said there were about 90 anti-Trump protestors and “about a dozen” Trump supporters.
Color vs. black and white? Our presses can print color only on some pages, including section front pages. The continuation of the story happened to end up on a page without color. Other photos on the page had to be black and white too.
Reader Chuck Smith wrote: “Today’s headlines, ‘White House taps billionaire to head intelligence review’ on page 5 and ‘Trump’s contempt for deals spurs anxiety,’ are examples that can only be seen as attempts to create negative perceptions of the president. As a reader of your paper, I expect fair and balanced reporting – not attempts to manipulate perception. An unbiased headline would have said, ‘White House taps Stephen Feinberg’ and ‘Trump’s plan to renegotiate trade agreements spurs anxiety.’”
On the first one, Trump himself referred to Feinberg as “a very successful man” and, in his campaign and other appointments, has shown the value he places on people who earned wealth. I’m thinking he wouldn’t disagree with the headline.
In addition, headline writers try to use words that will be meaningful to readers in understanding what the story is about, and using Feinberg’s name would fail that, since he is unknown in these parts.
On the second headline, Smith’s suggested headline would be more precise, but not as concise to fit into the space available on the page. “Contempt,” defined as “the feeling with which a person regards anything considered mean, vile or worthless; disdain; scorn,” probably was not the best word for Trump’s position; “Trump’s dislike of deals spurs anxiety” would have fit.
Several readers objected to our Feb. 22 front-page headline: “Immigrant policy flip imperils millions.”
Andrew Messina wrote: “The use of the verb ‘imperils’ is judgmental. It suggests imminent harm to innocent people, and implies victimization. I doubt you would publish a headline, ‘Civil rights enforcement imperils KKK’ or ‘Police patrols imperil local drug dealers.’ Most illegal residents have knowingly and willfully violated the laws of this country for their own benefit. Under existing US immigration laws, which are made by Congress and not any administration, every illegal immigrant is and always has been subject to deportation. DHS policy merely establishes enforcement priorities. Obama used lax enforcement to circumvent the law, Trump has resurrected it.”
Reader Ackerman asked: “How are they ‘imperiled?’ They have committed an illegal act; that does not make someone ‘imperiled.’ It makes them a criminal, subject to the penalties of the law.”
“Imperil” means “to put in peril or danger; endanger,” so the readers have a point. A better verb, which would have fit in the one-column headline, could have been “affects” or better yet, as the story said, “targets.”
On Feb. 20, an AP story said: “After weeks of tumult in Washington, Trump returned to Florida and his private club for a third straight weekend as he tries to refocus.”
Reader Jeff Barnett pointed out, “There is nothing in the article … that says the White House is unfocused. To the contrary. The AP writer inserted her opinion that the White House is unfocused. Bias. Jumped right out at me.”
Good point. While “tumult” is probably a good word for that week in Washington, there was nothing to indicate that Trump himself felt unfocused.
Daniszewski of AP added: “This was a case where it would have been better for the reporter to show the evidence of a refocus rather than simply stating it. In fact, the story was (later) rewritten to be more specific, saying that the president intended to use the weekend to choose a replacement for his national security adviser.”
From the other political side, reader Maureen Heenan saw conservative bias in a word Matt Soergel used in that story about the opposition movement in Jacksonville. He wrote: “Veterans of the Women’s March on Washington continue to meet to plot their next steps.”
Heenan pointed to the word “plot” and said Soergel’s “connotation that women involved in the March on Washington are subversive as they continue to work together, violates what our First Amendment guarantees. I believe Mr. Soergel’s phrase is disrespectful and points to his underlying bias in an article that, on the surface, seemed to track a growing anti-Trump movement.”
Well, there are different definitions of plot, both neutral and negative, and Soergel intended the former, in keeping with the tone of the overall story. Heenan’s sensitivity is noted.
Control of coverage
On Feb. 18, the T-U published a front-page story saying “the Trump administration considered a proposal to mobilize as many as 100,000 National Guard troops to round up unauthorized immigrants, including millions living nowhere near the Mexico border, according to a draft memo obtained by the Associated Press.”
The story went on to quote Homeland Security officials as saying it was a very early draft, not seriously considered and never brought to the Homeland Security secretary. White House spokesman Sean Spicer was quoted as saying the report was “100 percent not true” and there was no plan to use the National Guard.
Several readers asked why the “Times-Union” published the story since the White House already denied the plan. “Printing this article a day after the White House denied the claim is dishonest journalism!” said Bill Choisser.
“Is the draft memo real?” asked Steve McBride. “Yes. Is it something likely to have ever gotten signed? Based on the facts presented, no. Imagine if we had access to every draft concept the government develops, and you publish stories to make readers aware of the impacts. We’d go nuts. So why choose this one? It fits the overall anti-Trump story line – he’s out of control.”
The following week, Trump himself referred to immigration enforcement as “a military operation,” just before his Homeland Security secretary pledged in Mexico the military wouldn’t be used.
White House statements cannot always be taken as gospel, as evidenced by the Nixon administration’s dismissal of Watergate as “a third-rate burglary attempt” and Bill Clinton’s vow that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.”
Furthermore, politicians fly trial balloons all the time, to gauge reaction before ever making a public proposal.
Even consideration of using the National Guard for roundups of illegal immigrants was important enough that the citizenry should be informed.
Daniszewski said that, “in spite of the initial sharp criticism of this story from the administration as ‘100 percent false,’ the 11-page memo at the center of the AP story was authentic and had been under consideration as recently as five days in advance of when AP published, according to officials in the department of homeland security. AP posted the entire memo online for readers to see, and other news organizations were able to obtain and verify the document soon after. More than a day prior to publication, AP worked to obtain the White House’s views on the draft and the proposed involvement of the National Guard and received no response to multiple requests and emails. After the story moved, when the White House did distance itself from the draft, we were very quick to update our story with their views. The final immigration order that was published days later closely tracked the original memo and our story, with the omission of the passages involving the National Guard, which indeed has been dropped from the ultimate order.”
Analysis or opinion
Some stories are not intended to be hard news or straightforward reporting. On some complex or important stories, a well-informed reporter might be asked to write an analysis, that is, to analyze the big picture of a set of facts or a situation and interpret their meaning or possible meanings – without including the reporter’s own opinions. Such stories should be labeled “analysis.”
On Feb. 17, the “Times-Union” published a clearly labeled AP analysis of President Trump’s first news conference. The writer said his “performance was one of a swaggering, blustery campaigner, armed with grievances and primed to unload on his favorite targets …
“Trump bullied reporters, dismissed facts and then cracked a few caustic jokes – a combination that once made the candidate irresistible cable TV fodder…
“This was his and his aides’ attempt to get the boss his groove back. Trump used the event to try to claw his young administration back from the brink … He taunted reporters and waved away their attempts to fact-check him in real time.”
Reader Dennis Jones found it “totally negative” and said the phrases above “poison the entire article.” Joe Nuetzi said it was just the writer’s “leftist opinion on how much he hates President Trump.”
“Way over the top,” wrote Alan Pease.
“If you are going to put an article on the front page of our newspaper, please don’t use an opinion piece,” said Scott Flint. “Please place it on your viewpoint page, where people can ‘analyze’ it for themselves and not take it as a true work of reporting.”
While I think a viewing of the news conference show the story to be essentially true, the choice of words and characterizations loaded the piece with judgment and made me squirm a bit. The piece was in a gray area between analysis and opinion, but I would have been more comfortable with placement on our opinion pages or a more sober analysis.
Daniszewski of AP responded, “The news conference was dramatic, contentious and something of a sensation to the correspondents who cover the White House routinely because the president was so unusually expansive and expressive. It is always a writing challenge to capture the atmosphere and feel of an event for people who were not there, whether a coach’s news conference or a president’s, and powerful words like ‘taunt,’ ‘bullied,’ ‘caustic,’ were meant to convey the president’s actual mood and statements. That said, we believe that tone is important, and so we are asking our reporters to provide more facts to explicitly support their descriptions.”
Pro-conservative bias too?
The vast majority of the readers’ examples saw liberal bias in the “Times-Union,” but some others saw conservative bias.
“I’m surprised that many of your readers feel the ‘Times-Union’ is left-leaning!” Doug Coleman wrote. “I am a faithful subscriber and believer in the importance of a local newspaper. And I always am suspicious of the T-U due to the right-wing owners who endorsed Donald Trump in the election. That was bias. It seems clear to me that the editorial page is biased towards the conservative side. I don’t think it extends beyond that. And I hope it stays that way.”
“Times-Union” journalism, like that of most mainstream newspapers, has two separate components: the newsroom, which covers the news impartially and fairly without any other agenda, and the editorial page, which consists of opinions from our readers and our editorial board. Opinions are biased by definition.
While we normally don’t publish views of people who won’t put their names to their opinions, I am making an exception for one self-described “60-year-old white male Ph.D.-educated professional” who finds me hopelessly conservative: “Your column alone smacks of your own journalistic unprofessionalism and clear bias to the ‘right.’ The whole premise of your column seems to be that fake news may or may not exist, and if it does, it is primarily a tool liberals (use) to mislead the conservatives! That’s so not true. I don’t think your premise about primarily-liberal-generated fake news, is even the opinion of the majority of Americans, but instead just of blinded conservatives like yourself, and those on the extreme ‘right,’ like you.”
This exercise has been long and tedious, and if you’ve stayed with us this far, I congratulate and thank you for your careful attention to the “Times-Union.”
What our journalists do every day also can be tedious, and it is subjective and on deadline.
But their work is guided by our very clear code of ethics that requires impartiality and fairness. If we drift, as humans do, our system of checks and balances provides course corrections.
All of us care deeply about these principles and live by them.
We have learned from this process — and hope you have too.