Public Editor

Readers pay attention to language, data in columns

As The Kansas City Star’s public editor, my primary job is to look at readers’ concerns about accuracy and fairness in news coverage. However, readers also contact me very frequently with similar concerns about the various commentaries that appear in the paper.

Many opinion pieces are extremely pointed and provocative by design. But when a column may use facts that are inaccurate or interpreted questionably in the service of a thesis, it falls to me to check out readers’ concerns.

Two good illustrations from recent months:

• As I’ve pointed out many times, readers pay close attention to writers’ use of language. Last week, Star editorial board member Yael T. Abouhalkah wrote a post on’s Midwest Voices blog about a list published by the National Rifle Association Institute for Legislative Action identifying what it calls “National Organizations With Anti-Gun Policies,” “Anti-Gun Individuals Celebrities,” “Anti-Gun Corporations/Corporate Heads” and “Publication and Media Outlets.”

The headline on the post read, “NRA’s ‘enemies list’ includes Hallmark, KC Chiefs, AMC.” But does the NRA really have such a list, wondered one emailer? “How does the headline writer justify putting ‘enemies list’ in quotes?” he asked.

That’s a fair question. Here, “enemies list” is a direct quote from Abouhalkah’s post, so the headline’s punctuation makes that clear to me. No, the NRA-ILA didn’t use that title, but I think it’s reasonable for an opinion writer.

The reader had an interesting personal observation after I pointed out the phrase was from the column itself:

Having grown up through the Watergate era, I saw that headline and thought that the NRA had some secret list that had been discovered. My immediate inference was that the headline quoted the NRA not Yael.

In any other context, a headline quoting a phrase from an opinion writer wouldn’t have struck me that way. But “enemies list” is a phrase that evokes memories of Nixon’s real-life enemies list, with henchmen that brought the full force of government down on those that disagreed with the Nixon administration.

I certainly can’t argue with why it struck him that way.

• It’s not unusual for readers to fact-check columnists’ use of facts and figures — a verification I appreciate fully. I recently heard from one who questioned a “Diversity Diva” column from last November that referred to results of an Associated Press poll.

The column summarized, “a recent Associated Press poll finding that 51 percent of white Americans harbored some degree of racial prejudice against blacks, some of it unconscious.” It didn’t specify the title of the poll or where one could find it, and that raised further questions for the reader who contacted me.

She had found other polls that seemed to indicate the 51 percent figure referred to the entire U.S. population, not just whites, and further asked if the AP poll had figures on blacks’ racial prejudice against whites.

I pointed her to the AP’s story about the poll, but the data it linked to were not complete. So I contacted Josh Pasek of the University of Michigan, who worked on the study. He confirmed that the column was correct, and said that the results can be read to say 46.6 percent of blacks (and 30.2 percent of whites) have some prejudice against whites.

It’s within a columnist’s purview to choose facts that support a point of view, but as many readers have pointed out, that means they sometimes also elide other, less convenient details.

In this particular case, I don’t think the study’s other conclusions negate the column’s point, but my emailer would have a good counter-point for a letter to the editor, for example. The Star should continue to air its critics’ responses to opinion pieces.