Claim of bias in health-care story off the mark

Jack Lessenberry
Jack Lessenberry

Many of the complaints I hear about journalism have to do with supposed “bias” in how news stories are covered.

Readers often think that reporters have a political or personal agenda in how they put together and write their stories. Most, though far from all, of those complaining think they detect “liberal” bias.

That is likely because The Blade, which is officially an independent newspaper, often takes editorial positions perceived as being “liberal” on its editorial page, as in the newspaper’s endorsements of President Obama, for example.

Once in a while, someone will complain that the newspaper is unfairly slanted to the right, usually on local labor issues.

The fact is that while columnists and editorial writers do have an agenda, most reporters do not — except for finding out interesting and significant things and telling the world about them.

That doesn’t mean that there has never been a story in this newspaper that hasn’t been improperly slanted to some degree.

But after reading The Blade closely since I became ombudsman in 1998, I feel safe in saying that I have seen almost no political bias in the news columns whatsoever.

What I do often find is that, much of the time, many readers tend to see stories through the influence of their own ideologies. Sometimes, when reviewing their complaints, I have almost wondered if they and I are reading the same article.

For example, reader Joe O’Leary of Whitehouse complained about a story Blade staff writer Marlene Harris-Taylor wrote about the Affordable Care Act. Mr. O’Leary felt the story was “most misleading” and wondered “bad reporting and editing or bias?”

The story in question, published on Dec. 21, ran inside the newspaper under the headline “Monday deadline looms for health insurance sign-up.” I read it intently several times.

The story, in fact, had no political point of view whatsoever. It began: “Monday is the deadline for the uninsured to enroll in a plan through the federal Web site for coverage to begin Jan 1, when health insurance coverage becomes mandatory for most Americans, although uninsured people can avoid a tax penalty if they enroll in an insurance plan by March 31.”

From there, it went on to tell how many people had signed up already, how they can get help signing up if they choose, and what they could expect to pay for different levels of coverage.

This was standard information of the type I wish every newspaper supplied its readers. As someone who teaches journalism, I wouldn’t say the story was perfect.

Parts of it could have been better organized, and that first sentence was way too long. But I was genuinely puzzled.

What bias?

It turns out Mr. O’Leary apparently is a diehard opponent of President Obama’s health insurance plan and thought the Dec. 21 story should have covered things he doesn’t like about it, including “possible government subsidies.”

Well, those are legitimate issues that have been written about many times before. But the fact is that it is the law of the land, has been passed by Congress, and upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

And this is just a story informing readers how signing up for it works. I have no idea how Ms. Harris-Taylor feels politically about “Obamacare“ and can‘t tell from this story.

Which means she has done a completely professional job. That doesn’t mean that stories are always “objective.” Actually, that’s one term I wish we would drop from our vocabulary.

Reporters, editors, and readers make value judgments every day about what is in the paper. They have to do that.

You might, on any given day, see a lot of space devoted to a front-page story on a car crash that kills three people, while a bus accident killing 40 in Mexico gets one paragraph inside the paper.

Does that mean the paper sees Mexican lives as less valuable than those of Toledoans? Not at all. But the newspaper serves this region — and the deaths of local folks are likely of more concern here.

You certainly can disagree with the editors’ priorities. I sometimes do myself. But those putting out the news are trying to do the best job they can to get that news, make sense of it, and put it in proportion every day, with limited space and time.

I think the wonder is that they do it as well as they do.

■ Nobody likes being edited. Dennis Kraynak of Perrysburg complained about a letter to the editor he wrote complaining that Buckeye CableSystem was no longer carrying WNWO, Channel 24.

The newspaper ran his letter, but he complained that his last line was omitted, in which after he said he wanted the channel back, he said, “Otherwise, it may be Time [Warner] for a change.”

Your ombudsman is of two minds about this.

On one hand, as the newspaper normally takes pains to make clear, The Blade and Buckeye CableSystem have the same owner, Block Communications Inc. If the letter was edited to remove a reference to a potential competitor, Time Warner cable, that would be ethically dubious. On the other hand, I thought Mr. Kraynak’s attempt at a cute pun was more confusing than anything else.

The main point of his letter was to demand Buckeye reinstate WNWO, and I think leaving out the last sentence actually made his main point more clear. The news sections of The Blade, incidentally, have fully covered the Buckeye/​WNWO controversy.

Anyone who has a concern about fairness or accuracy in The Blade is invited to write me, c/​o The Blade; 541 N. Superior St., Toledo, 43660, or at my Detroit office: 563 Manoogian Hall, Wayne State University, Detroit, MI 48202; call me at 1-888-746-8610; or email me at I cannot promise to address every question in the newspaper, but I do promise that everyone who contacts me with a serious question will get a personal reply. Reminder, however: If you don’t leave me an email address or a phone number, I have no way to get in touch with you.

Jack Lessenberry is a member of the journalism faculty at Wayne State University in Detroit and a former national editor of The Blade.

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