Is the Daily a liberal newspaper? This is a question that’s raised regularly by readers who criticize the paper. The charge is usually leveled against a news story or an editorial that the reader feels unfairly maligns his or her view of the world or doesn’t even acknowledge that another point of view might exist.
The “liberal” tag is also part of a broader indictment of the mainstream press in general. There are many who see newspapers as an arm of the elite who work in lockstep to browbeat those who disagree with them to ensure widespread support of the pro-choice, pro-gay marriage, anti-global warming agenda and scoff or belittle those who disagree with them. Or worse, they see newspapers merely as an arm of the Democratic Party. It’s also a way to discount news they see in the newspaper by saying it’s just not fair because it only represents one point of view.
I think part of this criticism arises because newspapers tend to be critical of those in power. Ask Al Gore about his treatment during the 2000 campaign, and I doubt he’d say it was universally fair. Or ask Hillary Clinton – who said in the 1990s that there was a vast right-wing conspiracy out to get her husband during the Monica Lewinsky scandal – and see if she believes there’s a liberal bias. Another problem is that readers often don’t see the difference between editorials, which express a point of view, and news stories, which are supposed to be objective.
At the Daily, like almost every major newspaper, there is a wall between editorial policy and news coverage. Editorial board members meet twice a week to propose and discuss editorial topics and vote on what positions to take. News reporters do occasionally come to editorial board meetings, but generally only to explain their stories, and they do not vote on editorials.
Editorials do not drive news coverage. “News stories always come first,” said Editorial Page Editor Imran Syed. The editorial staff usually waits to write about campus issues until the news staff has published a story.
Are the Daily’s editorial opinions liberal? “Yes they are,” says Editor in Chief Karl Stampfl.
“I don’t think anyone would deny that,” Syed said.
But that doesn’t diminish the paper’s commitment to fairness in its news pages. “We’re really careful to make sure the major viewpoints are represented,” Stampfl said. This doesn’t mean every story has to have a perfect balance of every side of an issue that would lead to wooden news reporting. Instead, it means that every effort should be made to ensure that the story is fair.
Sometimes when a story appears unbalanced and seems to support the ideas championed by the newspaper’s editorial page, it can fuel the criticism that the newspaper’s news stories only work to reinforce its political agenda.
In the Nov. 6th news story written by reporter Mara Gay (Court set to hear benefits case: Same-sex couples say they might leave ‘U’ if court doesn’t overturn decision), a reader might get the feeling that there is no one who disagrees that the Michigan Supreme Court should overturn a ruling denying the University the ability to grant domestic partnership benefits. This was followed by an editorial Nov. 12 calling for the Michigan Supreme Court to restore benefits for gay couples.
The Nov. 6 story didn’t include comments from people at the University who supported the idea that the state should ban public universities and municipalities from providing domestic partner benefits, and some readers thought that it seemed like a willful omission designed to show there was unanimity of support for restoring domestic partnership benefits.
Reporter Mara Gay said the Nov. 6 story was more of a feature story about those affected by the pending court decision rather than a traditional news story about the pros and cons of the domestic partnership benefits case now facing the Michigan Supreme Court. She said that all of the people who would be affected by the law were gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender.
The net result is that no opposing views were featured in the story. This could have been cured either by having a separate news story that captured the diversity of views on the subject or by incorporating opposing views into the Daily’s story.
But that’s not main reason why I think it’s important that both sides of an issue should get aired in a news story. I’m pretty sure even supporters of reinstating domestic partnership benefits would like to know how their opponents justify using an amendment that purports to ban marriage between people of the same gender as a vehicle to deny health care.
I think it’s important that the Daily ensure that all viewpoints are heard in a news story, not just because that’s the right thing to do, but also because both sides deserve to hear and understand each other’s arguments.
– Paul H. Johnson is the Daily’s public editor. He can be reached at email@example.com.