I love election season. For all of its flaws, it’s still democracy in action. And a presidential election carries with it the added excitement of history in the making.
It’s also the season for a daily stream of emails I get accusing the newspaper of bias for or against the writer’s favored candidate. Many are emotional and accusatory, built on the absolute certain knowledge that the news staff is laboring to execute an intricate conspiracy.
I take each one seriously. Sometimes, I quickly see how a writer came to his or her conclusion. A word we used may be a little loaded in meaning, or we left out a pertinent fact. Most of the time, these are errors of oversight or failure to anticipate how an article or headline would be perceived by readers. Sometimes, the writer or editor truly has bought too hard into one candidate’s argument, and we have to talk about how to provide better balance. And sometimes, the plain fact is that with so many offices up for election, some races are in danger of slipping through the cracks and not getting enough coverage unless we’re vigilant.
The hardest complaints to resolve, though, are the ones that are based on an unspecific perception the reader has about the intent of the writer. One article last week drew seething responses – and threats to cancel the paper – from two readers. One believed the article was grossly biased toward a liberal viewpoint. The other was equally passionate that The Eagle is “a conservative rage” and this story was another example of our right-wing bias.
The concept of bias is complex – both in its reality (no one can truly have zero beliefs and biases) and in the reader’s passionate perception that bias exists. Often, we see what we want to see or expect to see. It can be hard, when we’re pushed for specifics, to put our finger on the source of the slant we think we see.
One of my naive hopes each election season is for civility in our debate. I love debating ideas and viewpoints with friends and listening to them explain their beliefs. And I continue to be saddened and frustrated by the growing refusal of so many people to debate ideas without attacking people. I’ve had very enlightening discussions with people I respect greatly – I sometimes disagree completely with their view on a subject, but I don’t feel a compulsion to attack them personally, nor do I lose respect because our ideas might conflict.
We have a complicated assignment until November. We have to take seriously our responsibility for squelching biases, or the perception of them. At the same time, many readers today have a hair-trigger for proclaiming bias, and we’re not helped when whole political organizations establish a strategy of urging people to claim bias as a way to get letters to the editor published. (The MoveOn organization sent an email blast linking to instructions on how to do this for an orchestrated attack on Sarah Palin. A reader sent me the email, complete with a Web form for sending letters to the editor and a suggestion that the best way to get letters published is to pick an article and allege your viewpoint was excluded.)
For good and for bad, happy election season to all.