You'd think the reporter and editors would be doubly careful about anything that would even hint at a bias.
You would be wrong.
The Winnipeg Free Press has been stung by The Black Rod's stories citing its reporters and editors in the Peter Kent Challenge. Last week the paper decided to address the issue in a circuitous manner--by printing a story that says the Canadian public believes the news media coverage of the election is fair and honest. So there.
The story was headlined "Most Canadians think media giving it straight." Written by Canadian Press reporter Stephen Thorne, it was a story carried across the country.
But today, reporter Stephen Thorne and Canadian Press become Exhibit E of The Black Rod's continuing Peter Kent Challenge.
Thorne bases his story on an online poll being conducted by Decima Research, with the help of Carleton University School of Journalism and Communication. We don't know if Carleton took up Peter Kent's challenge to monitor the major news media for anti-Conservative bias, but we think not, based on the interpretations of their own poll data.
The CP story highlights the main point of the poll---40 percent of Canadians believe most journalists want the Liberals to win the election, yet 73 percent of Canadians say the media has done an "excellent or good" job of covering the campaign.
The implication is obvious.
Journalists may be personally biased, but they're true professionals who never inject their own bias into their stories.
And just in case you missed the point, Thorne interviewed pollster Bruce Anderson to give the proper spin to the data.
"Sometimes, what people describe as their perceptions or their criticisms of news coverage is really a reflection of their own personal preferences," said Anderson.
Got it, yet? Journalists may be biased but their stories aren't . And people who see a bias in the news do so because they're biased themselves.
Decima Research says in its news release about the poll that "most (Canadians) don't perceive any institutional bias within leading media outlets" (basically the two national newspapers, the television networks, CBC radio and daily newspapers).
Interesting, except that it's wrong.
Their own poll shows, under the heading Impressions of Bias of Each English Media Source, that a small minority of Canadians (about six percent) sees no bias; they replied None to the question. However, a large plurality, often half of the sample or higher depending on the news source in question, answered "unsure". Unsure is not the same as "don't perceive any institutional bias."
The problem of answering the question may lie in the wording, which for a school that has Communication in its title, is excessively vague.
"Do you think the (media source in question) most often leans toward the Liberals, the Conservatives, the New Democrats, none of the parties or you don't know."
Well, how do you define "most often"? Fifty-one percent? Four stories out of seven? Do columns count? Editorials? No wonder most people said they didn't know.
And that's exactly what also happened with the poll's major question.
"If you had to guess, which party do you think most journalists covering this election want to see form the government after this election: the Liberals, Conservatives or the NDP?"
The unfortunate use of the word "guess" makes this question pretty suspect. Did they really mean "guess". If the respondent took them at their word, then the answers have as much validity as the answers off a ouija board.
Or was "guess" used colloquially to put the respondent at ease but really meaning "in your opinion"?
Whatever they meant, the answer they got was a tad different from the one reported in the CP story. Yes, 40 percent of respondents said they "guessed" that journalists wanted the Liberals to win. But 35 percent were unsure.
In other words, of the people paying attention and holding an opinion, slightly more than 60 percent believed journalists wanted the Liberals to win.
It gets even more confusing when you see how Decima split up the sources for the answer.
* They divided the respondents by politics: Left, Centre-Left, Centre, Centre-Right, and Right.
* They boiled down those responses into: Left, Centre, and Right.
* Then Decided and Undecided.
* Then by Liberal, Conservative, NDP, and Bloc voters.
Unfortunately we have no idea how they defined the political leanings, so we assume they simply asked how people designated themselves. Nor do we know how many voters fall into the decided and undecided categories. Or how many centre-left voters are voting Conservative and how many NDP. It's all pretty much a mishmash.
And what of the 73 percent who thought the election coverage was either good or excellent? Well, there's an order of magnitude difference between the two, isn't there?
Decima says BQ voters were most satisfied with the coverage (81 percent) , and Conservative supporters were least satisfied (70 percent).
Were these satisfaction values for "good" or "excellent" coverage?
Noticeably missing from Decima's news release was how Liberal voters felt about the coverage. Why? Surely knowing how Liberal voters feel about election coverage is more important than how BQ voters feel.
We suspect the 35 percent who said they were unsure of a political bias, plus the six percent or so who said they couldn't see any, voted "good." And the Liberal voters (both Left, Centre Left and Centre) who like the pro-Liberal reporting of their pro-Liberal journalists, voted "excellent."
So much for not finding any bias.
And, as if to underscore our suspicions, good ol' CP journalist Stephen Thorne added his two cents. Near the end of his story, he wrote:
"The numbers tended to reflect the left or right leanings of various media. Predominantly right-wing readers of the National Post and talk-radio listeners, for example, tended to feel overall media bias for the Liberals while CBC-TV and -Radio listeners tended to see less pro-Liberal bias."
Compare that with the same information in Decima's news release:
"The perception is strikingly divided along ideological lines: 58 percent of those on the right believe reporters want a Liberal government. This view is also more common among National Post readers and talk radio listeners."
The pollsters did not use the term "right-wing readers of the National Post and talk-radio listeners."
This was a concoction by Thorne, reflecting, we suspect, his personal opinion.
Why do we say that?
Well, we notice that somehow he fails to mention any "left wing watchers of CBC-TV" and "left-wing listeners" of CBC-Radio.
This sort of reporting was best dissected in the 1996 book Bias: A CBS Insider Exposes How the Media Distort the News by Bernie Goldberg.
Left-wing reporters see themselves as centrists. To them the left is the Socialist Workers Party, not good liberals like themselves. So right-wing is used as a perjorative, rather than a descriptive term, and left-wing is never used.
The Winnipeg Free Press may have thought it could dismiss The Peter Kent Challenge by running Thorne's CP story. But they should have read Bernie Goldberg's book first.
Before leaving the topic of news media bias, what can you make of the strange divide in local news coverage of a new get-out-the-vote campaign announced Tuesday.
CBC News and the Free Press reported it as a straight ahead campaign to get more natives to vote. FP reporter Mia Rabson wrote that the Grand Chief of the Southern Chiefs Organization, Chris Henderson, said he was planning to spend $10,000 on billboards and news media ads to encourage aboriginals in Winnipeg's core area to cast ballots in the federal election.
Rabson said he wasn't endorsing any party. "He just wants people to vote, period," she wrote.
CBC's story was a carbon copy.
Henderson says the campaign doesn't endorse any candidate or party. Regardless of who wins the election, he says, he just wants to see more First Nations voters at the polls.
How then to reconcile the same story in the Winnipeg Sun. Their headline:
" Natives Exhorted to Vote
But not for Tories: Chiefs."
Reporter Tamara King reported from a parallel universe, one where Henderson was launching native voter-missiles at Conservative candidates.
"The Southern Chiefs Organization kicked off the campaign yesterday by telling aboriginals to vote to prevent Stephen Harper from becoming the next prime minister." she wrote.
"Henderson said the difference between this year's campaign and the 2004 campaign when two prominent aboriginal groups publicly endorsed Paul Martin, is that the SCO is not telling natives who to vote for, only to avoid the Conservatives."
Did the Free Press and the CBC deliberately avoid mentioning the anti-Tory intent of Henderson's campaign?
Or did Tamara King get an exclusive interview where Henderson revealed his plans only to her?
Is this good reporting?
Well, certainly not excellent. Not surprisingly, none of the reporters mentioned the the $5 billion the Liberals promised the Assembly of First Nations just days before the election or how this might influence the opinions of Chiefs who can't wait to get their hands on that booty.
Mia Rabson made sure to mention Henderson's remark that if Iraqi citizens can defy death and destruction to exercise their right to vote, then "there's no reason our people can't get out and vote".
She failed to ask the question, of what kind of "democracy" First Nations voters live under, knowing their leaders - who control the issuing of families tribal cheques and payments, and who decide on much of the hiring for scarce jobs on-reserve - have made clear that anyone who even suggests they may vote Conservative isn't following orders.