Fair, balanced? Not our dailies

Think tank study finds News, Post toe the establishment line

Oct. 21, 2006

by David Kopel

You can call the Rocky Mountain Newsand The Denver Posta lot of things, but one thing you can't call them is "fair and balanced." When the Colorado establishment lines up on one side of an issue, the Newsand the Postgo along. Consider, for example, how the Denver dailies have covered this year's marijuana initiative (Amendment 44) and last year's Referendums C and D (increased spending and borrowing).

Several weeks ago, the Independence Institute released a study,Unabashed Bias,of how the Newsand the Posthad covered the debate on Referendums C and D. As research director of the Independence Institute (and, therefore, editor of the study), I normally do not write about Independence Institute issues in this column. But I'm making an exception, because the News,unlike thePostand Westword, has failed to report on the study - even though the study documents egregious misconduct on the part of the News.

Shortly before the election, for seven days in a row, the Newsran a "fact box" which purported to be an objective description of Referendum D. To the contrary, the description was copied nearly verbatim from the Web site of the referendum's proponents. The unattributed copying amounted to plagiarism, and to a flagrant deception of Newsreaders, who were given one-sided propaganda disguised as neutral reporting.

There is no excuse for reprinting one side's campaign literature without identification.

More generally, Unabashed Biasexamined how the Denver papers covered the C and D debate. The study counted the column inches which each news story gave to the views of proponents, and to the views of opponents. If a story gave approximately the same space to both sides, the story was scored as "neutral." If the story gave significantly more space to one side, then it was scored as favoring that particular side.

Considering only the news stories (and not editorials, cartoons, etc.), the study found that 57 percent of stories reported mainly the view of proponents, 42 percent of stories were neutral, and 1 percent of stories reported mainly the views of opponents.

My biweekly counterpart in this space, Jason Salzman, wrote in an e-mail exchange that the "C and D study was probably right." He reasons, however, "that journalism is supposed to be fair and accurate, not fair and balanced . . . So even if the coverage was not balanced, it was fair, given that the entire establishment - politicians, university presidents, roadbuilders, hospital leaders, etc. - were for C and D."

Jason makes a valid point. The pro-C-and-D coalition comprised the largest, most formidable political machine ever assembled in Colorado in the last half-century. On the whole, the coverage accurately reflected elite opinion.

While the establishment, including the Denver papers, was nearly monolithic, the public was evenly divided. C passed by 52 percent to 48 percent, while D failed 49 percent to 51 percent.

Newspapers these days invest enormous efforts in attempting to mirror the diversity of their communities. But when covering C and D, the Denver newspapers did not mirror the community; rather, they mirrored the establishment. Given the slim margin of the pro-C vote, it seems likely that the extremely unbalanced coverage of the Newsand the Postwas a decisive factor in favor of the largest wealth transfer from taxpayers to tax consumers in the history of Colorado statehood.

In a follow-up e-mail, Jason wrote of "the 'statist' bias of the news media. Even as watchdog, it still serves as a mouthpiece for the establishment . . . " I think he is correct, and it is not surprising that the news media would support a plan to grow state government by $5 billion in the short term, and much more in the long term.

The statist/establishment bias is likewise visible, albeit to a lesser degree, in the coverage of Amendment 44, which would make marijuana possession legal for adults in Colorado, as it was until 1917. Counting news stories in the Denver dailies in the last month, I found that four stories gave significantly more space to the opponents, seven were neutral, and one favored the proponents.

When opponents staged media events, the opponents' views predominated in the coverage, but when proponent events or advocates were covered, the stories usually gave equal space to both sides.

Suppose a movie reviewer said: "Most viewers enjoyed the good-natured (if Jewish-themed) music in Fiddler on the Roof." It would be fair to wonder if the reviewer were anti-Semitic. Now consider how Postwriter Richard Baca began a review of a Veggie TalesCD: "Most parents appreciate the good-natured (if Christian-themed) sentiment of the video series . . . "  

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Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily representing the views of the Independence Institute or as an attempt to influence any election or legislative action. Please send comments to Independence Institute, 727 East 16th Ave., Colorado 80203. Phone 303-279-6536. (email) webmngr @ i2i.org

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