Challenging power and serving the vulnerable

It’s not unusual for readers to call and complain that The Salt Lake Tribune is biased against Republicans and conservatives. When George W. Bush was president, if I was not hearing about Pat Bagley’s cartoons, I was hearing about our editorials and the articles we ran that were critical of any Republicans.

I still hear those complaints, but now I am hearing from others asking, “Why are you picking on Obama?”

Allow me to quote Chicago newspaperman Peter Finley Dunne, who wrote in one of his columns (excuse the Irish brogue): “Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis foorce an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.”

The most important part of that sentence is “comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable.” Most reporters and editors take that to heart. A newspaper challenges authority, regardless of which side is in power. It also speaks for those who have no voice — senior citizens, prisoners, children, the mentally ill and the handicapped.

It is those factors — not political biases — that guide what Tribune journalists decide to publish. Managing Editor for News and Business Terry Orme explains:

“We emphasize the stories that we believe are most important to our readers, the issues and events that affect them and that they care about. … When we have a lot of news and limited space, we trim down our stories to get more of them into the paper. It can be a painful process, because you are taking out context. But it can also be healthy, because people’s time is valuable.”

The migration of news readers to online also gives newspapers the opportunity for a more diverse selection of news. Because there are no space limitations on the Web and it can be updated all day, virtually any story can have its moment.

“We have the ability to update our lineup quickly,” said Breaking News Editor Michael Nakoryakov. “That allows me to use, in addition to breaking stuff, stories that are just ‘interesting’ if sometimes lightweight. We also post hot national stuff — unemployment numbers, economic growth or Afghanistan operations — in prominent positions.”

Several years ago, we set about measuring the bias of the newspaper by assigning a staff member to randomly pick articles, graphics and photos from the newspaper over the course of several months and then quantify and analyze the numbers. We found that women and minorities seemed underrepresented in some of our sections. We have worked to overcome this. But we did not find that news stories failed to find balance in telling about events or people.

Since we are getting complaints from both conservatives and liberals, we take that to mean we’re getting our job done.

This column was originally published in The Salt Lake Tribune on February 12, 2010.

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