Balance needed to offset overwhelming negativity

When someone alerts me to a matter of accuracy, it’s usually an easy call. If a story misidentifies a city councilman’s district, or a list of local student athletes receiving an honor omits one name, there’s little ambiguity. These examples, recently caught by readers, demanded corrections.

Fairness, though — that’s a different kettle of fish. I can find something to respect in nearly every argument I hear about how The Star might have included an additional point of view, or where a story focused too closely on one aspect of a complex debate.

For instance, a reader last Friday called because The Star hadn’t written about a water main break near his home. “I don’t know what we Northlanders have to do to get some coverage up here sometimes, to get noticed,” he said.

He pointed to two stories that day that he didn’t think affected nearly as many people in real-world terms: one about Ollie Gates’ objections to a police operation in one of his barbecue restaurants’ parking lots, and another about a mayoral write-in candidate from out of town whose request to bypass the primary election was turned down by city attorney Galen Beaufort.

I understand my caller’s point. When you don’t have access to clean water, most other concerns take a back seat. We all see our own particular interests through a similar lens.

Another illustration: I’ve heard quite a bit in recent weeks from activists who oppose designs for the new Polsinelli Shughart headquarters, currently proposed for the north edge of the Plaza. The Star has received and published many letters to the editor strongly condemning the project, several using language that I’d say verged on hyperbole.

Some readers have contacted me about the overwhelmingly negative tenor of these letters, especially since there have been relatively very few voices from the other side. One, an architect with a prominent local firm not involved in the design, said The Star was letting the opponents “gang up on a project they don’t fully understand in its proper context.” I encouraged him to write his own letter, but he declined, saying it would be unprofessional in his position.

For better or worse, negativity tends to be the currency of the field of punditry. These days, I hear from supporters of President Barack Obama who object to reading commentary criticizing his leadership and policies.

It can be hard for any of us to listen to opinions we disagree with vehemently — but I’d invite anyone to peruse letters that ran during any previous administration. The “agins” always outweigh the “fers.”

Would it be more “fair” to parse out letters by math, demanding one positive for every negative? I’d say no, especially when the volume of submissions leans heavily to one side.

But I agree that popularity isn’t the only gauge of merit. The Star shouldn’t merely hold its finger up to the wind.

This column was originally published in the Kansas City Star on Feb. 12, 2011.

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