Opinions and the news

Speaking to the Toronto Star editorial board this week, Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, himself a former journalist, joked that he quite understands the “rules” of journalism in an election campaign:

“You tell me how to do my job but I can’t tell you how to do yours.”

While Ignatieff declined the opportunity to give the roomful of journalists his assessment of media coverage of this election, the same can’t be said of Star readers, who are rarely reticent about speaking their minds about this news organization’s journalism.

Never in Canada’s history has it been so easy for readers to voice their views on an election and its media coverage. Not surprisingly, a great many readers have weighed in over the past month through letters to the editor, online comments, emails, tweets, blogs, Facebook and telephone calls.

Be it comment, complaint or criticism, this level of reader input on such an important story is a positive thing — evidence, I think, of the voter engagement vital to our democracy.

In looking at this feedback, I am struck by two things: readers’ perceptions are often wildly contradictory, and many seem not to comprehend the distinction between news and opinion in the Star.

“There appears to be a definitive bias in the election news coverage of the Star in favour of Stephen Harper,” Stephen Nancoo said. “On any day, the number of photos of Stephen Harper is more than the combined total of all the other political parties.

“I look forward to a greater degree of balance and journalistic integrity on the part of the Star for the remaining of the election campaign.”

Reader Barry DeGrandis also questioned what he considered a disproportionate number of Harper photos. “This is difficult to comprehend considering that you are supposedly a newspaper with liberal leanings and a supporter of social causes.”

From the opposite perspective, came this view from Fred Jonkman: “It could not be more evident in your reporting on the upcoming election that the Star is anti-Harper or anti-Conservative. One just has to look at the headlines and see that all the ‘news’ on the election criticizes Harper.

“The Star obviously is liberal and left-wing in its bias.”

A similar opinion was expressed by Norman Naumoff, a Star subscriber for 55 years: “It is with great concern that I am seeing an editorial content bias that has been politically ‘pro-Liberal’ moving significantly to one that is ‘blatantly Liberal at all cost’ to the point of journalistic hysteria.”

Another reader, questioning the accuracy of a report about NDP Leader Jack Layton, said: “Please try to be a little less transparent in your attempt to be the PR firm for the Liberal party.”

It is no secret that the Star is a small-l liberal news organization. The Star has long declared its institutional bias toward progressive principles and speaks out forcefully on its opinion pages for social and economic justice for all Canadians.

But clearly, the Star is not a mouthpiece for any political party in either its editorial opinions or its news coverage.

As I often explain to readers, news coverage and editorial opinions are separate entities in the Star. While news coverage is grounded in impartial reporting, editorials express the institutional voice of the Star and aim to provide leadership on issues important to our community.

Here, no one should be surprised by election editorials expressing strong views against the Tories. As was made clear in yesterday’s editorial,“No new mandate for Conservatives,” the Star fundamentally disagrees with the values of the Harper Conservatives.

At both the federal and provincial level, the Star has traditionally given its editorial endorsement to the party and leader it believes most likely to advance the progressive principles this news organization stands for.

Today’s editorial, “For Layton and the NDP” marks only the second time in 13 federal elections since 1968 that the Star has endorsed the NDP. In 1979, the Star endorsed Ed Broadbent’s New Democrats. (Robert Stanfield’s Tories got our support twice, in 1972 and 1974, and the Liberals the rest of the time.)

I think readers would be hard-pressed to make any case that this editorial endorsement influenced the Star’s news coverage. In covering the three major parties, the newsroom has strived to be fair and impartial, aiming for balance in its “play” of articles, photos and graphics on Page 1 and the inside pages of the newspaper and website.

While I can’t provide any quantitative analysis, having not measured every inch of coverage devoted to each of the parties, my general sense is that the Star succeeded here. For me, the fact that so many readers from both sides of the political spectrum expressed their certainty that the Star’s coverage was biased toward the other side is some evidence of that.

That’s my view. Now, I expect, you’ll give me yours.

This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on April 30, 2011.


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