Balanced election coverage has been a major topic of discussion in our newsroom lately. We strive for "balanced", or fair and unbiased, coverage of the various races, but what does that mean? This is especially tricky in the presidential race.
Both presidential candidates have passed through Columbia in the past two weeks, so let's compare the coverage.
John McCain came through on October 20. We were notified the week before, but not given a specific date or time. The morning of the day he arrived we were still speculating about exactly when he was coming in and what he was doing. Later that morning he flew in, had lunch at a barbeque joint, and left. A handful of people went to the airport to see him land; maybe 150 stood outside the restaurant where he ate with some business owners and prominent Republicans. He's made speeches in other towns in Missouri, but they are usually outside of the area our paper normally covers.
Barack Obama held a rally at Mizzou this past Thursday, which we knew about at least four days in advance. An estimated 40,000 people attended the rally, according to the campaign.
My editor dispatched as many reporters as he could to both visits. Six or so reporters went to the airport to see McCain land and to interview the crowd. Then they followed him to the restaurant and interviewed the crowd there. When he left, they went in and interviewed the waitress who served him.
More reporters covered Obama. About 20 of us succeeded in getting media passes, some stayed in the media section, others roamed the crowd to get feedback. Several stories, including one on his speech which I co-wrote, made it online and into the paper, along with video and audio clips of the crowd.
Was our coverage fair? More reporters covered Obama's event. There were more column inches on Obama, more links on the website. On the other hand, there was more to cover. Obama appeared at a scheduled event open to the public, whereas McCain ate lunch basically unannounced in a closed venue. Some argue that that shouldn't matter.
As the discussion continues, I, for my own part, am not sure what I think.
I am squarely supportive of one candidate, I intend to vote for him, and when talking with family and friends, I'm unabashed in conveying that preference.
But I'm a journalist. I tried to sit in the media pen at Obama's rally and be unemotional. I was, at times, unsuccessful.
What is our role? We are citizens, we vote, we have opinions, often strong ones. And we try to provide fair, unbalanced, biased coverage. Is it possible? I'm certainly in favor of unbaised coverage, but I'm also wondering where our humanity is allowed to reside. If I have a political bumper-sticker on my car, will people no longer trust me to be a fair reporter? Is it that I am allowed opinions, but I just can't let people know what they are?
Again I have questions and no answers.
For those who missed the link above, here's the story on Obama's Speech