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Ombudsman

Assessing Stripes’ coverage, relative to Romney and Obama

By ERNIE GATES | Stars and Stripes ombudsman | Published: June 15, 2012

One of my jobs as Ombudsman is to assess how the Stars and Stripes editorial staff is doing in its obligation to remain impartial, especially in electoral politics. In an earlier column, I looked at coverage of the Republican primary candidates in respect to each other and to President Barack Obama (“On scorecard, photo choices don’t add up to bias,” March 9). Now that the primary is settled, I’ll periodically test the balance of coverage in the main event.

Mitt Romney effectively clinched the nomination on April 24 when he swept the primaries in Pennsylvania, New York, Connecticut, Rhode Island and Delaware. So let’s take the month of May as a starting sample and have a look at the Romney-Obama balance sheet in Stripes’ political report and on its opinion pages.

The short answer: It’s clear that practiced hands and minds have been at work, balancing the report fairly between the president and, as the accurate but overworked phrase puts it, the “presumptive nominee.”

Overall, the president appears in more stories and a few more photos, but, after all, he’s the president — he’s making news away from the campaign, too. He’s hosting the NATO summit in Chicago, he’s being snubbed by Vladimir Putin, he’s laying a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknowns on Memorial Day.

Being the presidential newsmaker has its downside, too — Obama is the target of more critical op-eds and especially of more critical editorial cartoons. Comes with the territory.

I’ll add some color and commentary after I run down the numbers, but first let me make clear that there’s a lot of subjective judgment in what counts as positive or negative. Is a story about Obama supporting gay marriage positive or negative? What about a story disclosing that the administration has released high-level detainees as “bargaining chips” with the Taliban? Or, presented straight-ahead as news stories, are they neutral? I judged the gay marriage story to have a positive effect and the detainee release story as negative. Others would no doubt come up with a different count on the same scorecard.

Here are the raw numbers:

 

The objective is balance on the whole, not balance on a given day, though the Stripes newsroom does achieve that often. For instance, Stripes’ election coverage sometimes paired Obama and Romney stories around particular issues (the economy, gay marriage, the war) or particular events (Memorial Day, the NATO summit, a GOP primary). Running campaign stories were often Associated Press campaign roundups, which encompass both candidates in a single story. Similarly, both candidates’ positions and themes were sometimes compared side by side in a single story, as in the “mirror image” story on May 8. That layout featured the classic eyeball-to-eyeball pairing of candidate mugshots — what could be fairer, photo-wise?

Candidate photos can certainly carry a loaded message — recall that infamous wind-surfing photo of John Kerry in 2004 — but usually they’re neutral. In any case, judgment is in the eye of the beholder. On May 23, was the photo of Obama with Hamid Karzai positive or negative? On May 3, the president’s trip to Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan resulted in a dominant front-page photo with troops as the backdrop. Was that a positive impression or did it look like pandering? Probably depends who’s looking. In my tabulation, I didn’t assign any positive or negative value to photos.

As a Defense Department publication, formally, Stripes is prohibited from taking editorial positions. Instead, the editors strive to present a balanced sample of opinions from a broad spectrum of columnists, editorial writers, think tanks, subject experts and so on — including Stripes’ letter writers. Very often, rather than partisan pundits, the opinion pages feature analysis or commentary. On May 22, for example, the Los Angeles Times’ Doyle McManus assessed the potential election impact of the Supreme Court’s ruling on Obamacare and Bloomberg’s Al Hunt wrote about why both campaigns want to focus on the economy, not issues such as gay marriage.

Famously, editorial cartoonists are nobody’s friends. Their pointed humor is usually of the mocking kind, and every sitting president is a sitting duck. As with coverage overall, Obama will naturally get a bigger dose of cartoonists’ ink. As the campaign season plays out, and the election focus intensifies, I’d expect this to even out a little.

Many days, the opinion pages had nothing to do directly with the election. The editors sensibly decided the space was better used for a look at particular issues or policy choices, such as the “too big to fail” bank regulation, the prospect of another congressional debt crisis or the outlook for changing the campaign finance rules under the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision.

Here’s another way editors keep the election news in perspective: On a couple of days in May, the candidates weren’t the focus of any news coverage at all. Other stories properly crowded them out. For instance, on May 27, as special coverage ramped up for Memorial Day, the sole political coverage consisted of a wide-ranging commentary from Foreign Policy magazine, assessing the “satisfaction gap” — a measure of whether Americans feel the country is headed in the right or wrong direction.

To sum up, I think it’s clear that in May the Stars and Stripes newsroom lived up to its mandate to provide thorough and impartial campaign coverage and a balanced selection of opinion. That challenge will only get tougher as the campaign pace increases, along with the blood pressure of readers on both sides.

It always helps to remember the General Theory of Electoral Relativity: To someone on the left or the right, the middle always looks like the other side.

Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to ombudsman@stripes.osd.mil, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.

Ernie Gates’ blog

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