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Old 04-04-2004, 01:56 PM   #1
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Default Really interesting self-examination of a papers bias. Refreshing honest - LONG!!


By David House
Star-Telegram Staff Writer

Readers who fault the Star-Telegram's political coverage frequently have one problem in their sights: We label conservatives as "conservative," but we do not label liberals as "liberal."
Quick reply: That's mostly because conservatives trumpet their label; liberals do not. Organizations use mission statements in place of labels.
But there's more, readers say.
We don't label liberals because we're part of the biased liberal news media, meaning that we partner with liberals. Our mutual objective is to advance a deviant social agenda and an equally deviant big-government, anti-business, peacenik, tax-and-spend agenda that mainstream America rejects in favor of fiscal discipline, social responsibility, patriotism and traditional values.
In the process, the news media help liberals dodge a politically poisonous label by painting them as centrists or moderates. Some readers add that when we do identify conservatives as such, we're likely to use the term pejoratively.
Their bottom line: We fail the objectivity test and forfeit credibility.
Such allegations of unethical work may strike some journalists as nonsense, but media watchdogs, academics, Star-Telegram staff members and other observers say there's enough substance in those perceptions to take them seriously.
A recent look into whether we practice questionable political labeling put the matter into clearer perspective.
Researcher Marcia Melton and I combed through the paper's hard-news political coverage from 2003, searching for all instances in which we published the "conservative" and "liberal" labels.
We found that readers were correct in that the use of "conservative" far outnumbered the use of "liberal," (331-141), generally for reasons mentioned in the quick reply above.
But a closer look found evidence of time-worn journalistic and partisan political practices that could stand a tuneup to connect better during this presidential election year with the 21st-century electorate -- a complex population with an equally complex array of political views on any given issue.
Warnings about imbalanced labeling had been raised in a December Op-Ed commentary in the Star-Telegram by Sherry Sylvester, founder and director of Texas Media Watch, a self-styled nonpartisan project based in San Antonio that monitors Texas' largest newspapers for signs of questionable practices and coverage. (See: "Watch where you paste those labels," Dec. 12, Opinions.)
Sylvester decried labeling that creates perceptions of liberals as standing in the middle ground of Texas opinion with conservatives off to the right.
Her view drew on 20 years' experience as a journalist covering politics, public policy and the media for The Trentonian in New Jersey and the San Antonio Express-News. At one time she worked in professional politics in New York, writing for U.S. Senate candidate Geraldine Ferraro and New York City Mayor David Dinkins.
In her Op-Ed essay, she included measures of how lopsided labeling shows up in Texas newspapers. Republican Gov. Rick Perry was labeled as a conservative in 481 news stories in 2003, she said, "while no Texas Democrat was routinely given the liberal label."
She found scant use of "liberal" in references to three Democrats in particular -- U.S. Reps. Lloyd Doggett, Sheila Jackson Lee and Eddie Bernice Johnson -- even though their voting records were heavily liberal, according to the Almanac of American Politics. In fact, Sylvester said, she found no references in Texas newspapers to Jackson Lee as a liberal.
"Continuing to label mainstream ideas and politicians as conservative while trying to pass off liberal notions as middle of the road will only further erode public confidence in the media," she warned.
Sylvester contends with a labeling battle of her own.
Mainstream print journalists who cover Texas politics generally view Texas Media Watch as a conservative, Republican organization. The project is funded by the Austin-based Lone Star Foundation, a conservative think tank in Austin founded by ex-banker David Hartman, who has long been active in Republican politics at the state level.
Hartman was narrowly defeated in 1994 as the GOP candidate for state treasurer. The foundation says on its Web site that its interest is in "public policy based on traditional Texas values of family, freedom, free enterprise, and the Constitution."
Nevertheless, Sylvester insists, Texas Media Watch operates independently, without a partisan agenda and with neither Hartman nor the foundation or funding influencing her work.
"I just want fair coverage," she said.
Shortly after Sylvester's commentary ran, Jim Witt, vice president and executive editor of the Star-Telegram, asked for a look at how our use of labeling in local, state and national political coverage stacked up against Sylvester's findings.
Melton and I concentrated on 2003 editions and the incidence of labeling in hard-news coverage -- content that should meet strict standards of fairness, accuracy and balance. We looked at stories alone -- the heart of coverage that readers encounter every day and from which they form most of their perceptions.
We culled headlines, story summaries, captions, "How They Voted" lists, religion news, all opinion content on the editorial and Op-Ed pages, and opinionated content found in columnists' work elsewhere in the paper. We also eliminated stray use of "conservative" and "liberal" in content such as recipes and entertainment reviews.
What we saw first were 331 uses of "conservative" and 141 uses of "liberal." Roughly a third of those uses occurred in content that was mainly staff-generated. All of the material, however, moved through the Star-Telegram's editing process, in which editors are charged with safeguarding accuracy, fairness and balance.
In 39 percent of the uses of "conservative," the term labeled blocs such as partisan groups in Congress and in the electorate. One quarter of the uses labeled individuals such as elected representatives; 18 percent labeled advocacy organizations; and another 18 percent labeled ideology in coverage of issues such as Social Security that are typically cast as conflicts between conservative and liberal forces.
Using the same categories, 35 percent of the uses of "liberal" labeled blocs; 27 percent labeled individuals; 23 percent labeled organizations; and 15 percent labeled ideology at issue.
Findings paralleled Sylvester's in that we found no references to congressional representatives Jackson Lee, Doggett or Johnson as liberals.
A closer look found familiar forces driving the lopsided use of labels.
There was frequent use of one-word labels to give quick context to busy readers. Additionally, because conservatives dominated the public arena, they tended to dominate the news, increasing the frequency of the use of "conservative."
Meanwhile, it appeared that "liberal" wasn't used as much because liberals generally either ignored the term or preferred labels other than "liberal," which is poisonous in Texas and much of the United States.
However, some politicians such as state Rep. Lon Burnam, D-Fort Worth, do not shrink from the "liberal" label. Burnam was frequently labeled as such, including references to him as "an unapologetic liberal."
Contributing to "liberal"-deficient labeling was the media's hesitancy to use the label except in coverage of ideologically polarized fights involving issues such as nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court and federal benches.
A typical example surfaced in a Los Angeles Times story in April that addressed the clash between conservative and liberal ideology in the emergence of "a new phase in the long-running partisan battle over the judiciary."
There were missed opportunities to balance the labeling within reports in which conservatives were labeled but liberals were not when they could have been.
At times, reference to a "liberal" contingent was presented instead as a list of special interests, but a "conservative" contingent was simply labeled as such.
For instance, a May story about protests during ExxonMobil's annual meeting referred to "a throng of environmental and social activists" on one side and "conservative counterdemonstrators" on the other.
Throughout 2003, sources in stories included 27 "conservative" organizations and 16 "liberal" organizations.
Labels in stories were seldom attributed to self-labeling by politicians and organizations. That was the case in less than 9 percent of the uses.
Labeling occurred most often in staff and wire reports by journalists who were confident in their knowledge of candidates, organizations, blocs and other forces. They applied labels routinely. That occurred in 85 percent of the uses of "conservative" and 72 percent of the uses of "liberal."
I found no instance in which labeling seemed gratuitous or pejorative, but use or lack of modifiers created potential for problems.
For example, an Associated Press item in September seemed warm to the Sierra Club, an organization that's perceived as aggressively liberal, and cold to Judicial Watch when it referred to that organization simply as a "conservative group" but cast the Sierra Club as an "environmental group."
The AP was following those groups' self-descriptions, but many readers may not know such detail, leaving them vulnerable to suspicion of bias.
Labeling offers the convenience of one-word context, but the practice perpetuates problems.
"Politicians exploit labels," Sylvester said in an interview. "It does a disservice [to advancing public debate]. 'Conservative' doesn't mean anything. People have different images of 'conservative.' Who knows what 'liberal' means? Is it [actress] Susan Sarandon?
"Labels don't work because they've been manipulated by the political conversation, by paid media and politicians."
Matthew T. Felling, media director for the nonpartisan Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington, views labels such as "conservative" and "liberal" as agents of confusion.
"These are not absolute terms," Felling, a former national affairs reporter for print and radio media, said in a telephone interview. "But the people read them as if they were, and the media treat them as though they were."
Although those labels are pointing left and right, the reality is that most candidates and elected officials are aiming for the center of the political spectrum, Felling said.
Caught in the middle of that conflict like innocent victims are readers with a blurred understanding of what's going on.
Media psychologist Bernard J. Luskin, Ph.D., says that labeling can fall disappointingly short of reader expectations.
"Remember," he said in an interview, "that people who go to newspapers are information junkies. They want to know what's going on. And people are addicted to understanding [issues and events] and participating in them" by following developments.
"These are thoughtful people," he said. "Thoughtful people don't like to use either term ['conservative' or 'liberal']. They'd rather have information."
Luskin is executive vice president of the Fielding Graduate Institute, a distance-learning graduate school with headquarters in Santa Barbara, Calif. He also is professor and director of the media studies and media psychology programs.
But his background includes stints in TV news and entertainment, which help shape his grasp of social trends and conditions.
When he looks at the electorate, he sees an expanding mass of independent hybrids, each holding a blend of conservative and liberal views and generally inhabiting the middle ground on political issues; the labels they seek are far more tailored than "conservative" or "liberal."
"Those terms don't apply," Luskin said. "There's no question they're outdated, because the range of issues is so much broader these days. I don't know what better terms there are.
"The interesting thing about language is that communication is really hard, and when you're communicating across cultures, it's even more difficult."
Another political communications problem that challenges labeling stems from a diverse electorate perpetually affected by media-related technologies that "operate with lightning speed and stimulus response," he said. "Citizens are like overstimulated creatures, and they can only take so much before they get confused and disoriented."
The situation creates conditions that can facilitate manipulation of people, said one of Luskin's colleagues. Don Four Arrows Jacobs is an educator-author who holds a Ph.D. in health psychology, specializing in medical hypnosis, and an Ed.D. in curriculum and instruction.
Jacobs, former dean of the education department at Oglala Lakota College in Kyle, S.D., on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, notes that "the use of words during certain conditions can be hypnotic. Labeling is a classic way to use hypnotic strategies and works best when the listener is in some degree of fear or worry. Hitler understood this when he said that frightened people will believe even the biggest lies."
"When we label a country as evil or use a certain adjective to describe an idea, the English language lends itself to freeze the label into an unchanged reality. The way language is perceived makes it an incredibly powerful device for determining what people see as truth."
Jacobs says the media bear a distinct responsibility to use labeling wisely.
At stake is nothing less than democracy, in his view. If the news media are careless with labeling, "they're destroying the capacity for critical thinking and compassionate thinking that lead to our democratic ideals."
Problematic though "conservative" and "liberal" labels may be, they are deeply embedded in American political culture.
But there are ways to work around them to give readers details rather than quick generalities that politicians use as rhetorical weapons and that journalism accommodates when it slips into stenographic mode, simply repeating what politicians say.
Assistant Managing Editor John Gravois, who oversees the Star-Telegram's coverage of government and politics, encourages reporters to ignore labels whenever possible, opting instead for descriptions of where politicians and organizations stand on key issues.
"Especially in covering presidential politics, you try to get candidates to spell out their stand," he said.
Jay Root, chief of the Star-Telegram's Austin bureau, prefers not to use labels unless they add key context or reflect how politicians or organizations describe themselves.
"If, for example, you're writing about a school finance bill," he said, "and there's a group in the story that says it's nonpartisan -- meaning they don't get involved in an election -- but their orientation is liberal, that's good to point out."
Labeling a politician's voting record also is fair game, he said, "but I generally wouldn't call a person a liberal or a conservative if that person rejects either label."
Journalists typically honor politicians' self-proclaimed leanings and refer to them accordingly as part of the record.
Basically, however, labeling "is antiquated … and leads to false assumptions," Gravois said. "Labels don't mean anything anymore. No one is a pure conservative or liberal."
Purity also no longer applies to "Republican" and "Democrat," he added.
"Everyone wants to be a fiscal conservative right now. Everyone runs to the middle. Everyone overlaps on many issues. Democrats want to be seen as pro-business, and Republicans don't want to be seen as extreme and into people's private lives."
Steve Rendall, senior analyst for the New York City-based media watchdog group Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting, notes that "when you look at someone like [Democratic presidential candidate Sen. John] Kerry, some people are pointing out his liberal voting record, but he's moved centrist."
Rendall's colleague, FAIR media analyst Peter Hart, says that "at this point, most Democrats would run from the label 'liberal.' It's been used as an effective means of demonizing ideas and candidates. Kerry's very careful not to call himself a liberal."
Reluctance to label Democrats as liberals is viewed among conservatives as "one of the great media failings," Hart said, but "there are many Democrats who don't consider themselves liberal."
A perfect example, in Felling's view, is U.S. Sen. Zell Miller, D-Ga., a self-described fiscal conservative and devotee of bipartisan cooperation.
"He's making a living by walking and talking Republican," Felling said.
A lifelong Democrat and former two-term governor, Miller not only has endorsed Republican President Bush -- he also has scorched left-wing Democrats in his book, A National Party No More: The Conscience of a Conservative Democrat.
In an Op-Ed essay in the Atlanta Constitution, Miller wrote: "To me, governing should be about results, not ideology. Both Democrats and Republicans engage in too much of what I call 'party piety.'"
Add inaccurate party stereotypes to the labeling problem, and the result is a compounded burden on the news media to clear a path through the confusion to provide the public with fair, accurate and balanced political coverage.
In that regard, Felling and Sylvester have a couple of ideas.
Felling would use a four-degree set of labels: "conservative," "leans conservative," "leans liberal" and "liberal."
Sylvester would either drop ideological modifiers or be sure to use "liberal" as often as "conservative."
There may be no perfect approach, says Witt, because "there's no 'right' way to do journalism."
We do know, he said, that "our credibility is at stake, and we want to earn the people's trust every day. We talk a lot about balance. We know it's always better to describe politicians and developments in terms of the issues."
And although labels are a form of "imprecise shorthand," he added, "I don't see dropping them." They're a fixture in the political lexicon.
"We just need to remember that the point of political coverage is to help people make an informed decision and predict [elected officials'] behavior as their proxy."
News Researcher Marcia Melton contributed to this report.
David A. House is the Star-Telegram's reader advocate. (817) 390-7692 dhouse@star-telegram.com.

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