Public Editor

Readers are already watching for bias in election coverage, while others just want it to go away

Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.
Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Star news services

The Iowa caucuses are now over, so that means election season is officially upon us. I can already hear those among you who groan at that news.

The election process also brings out another reliable tradition from readers contacting me: parsing news coverage of the various candidates carefully, measuring whether the volume and tenor of those reports are fair or not.

Especially at this stage in the game, though, readers occasionally remind me that the general public isn’t as interested in the mano a mano of the caucuses and primaries as the political junkies of the world.

“Enough with the Iowa stuff,” said one exasperated sounding caller last week. “That’s all cable news has all day. Give us Kansas City news.”

I understand her frustration, particularly because fortunes can change seemingly overnight at this stage in the game.

But I also get why others believe the press needs to focus intently on the early stages of the election. Once the two major parties lock into their candidates of choice, internecine struggles on both sides tend to fade into the background.

And this year, those struggles are as significant as any I can recall. In the Democratic Party, Bernie Sanders’ maverick, laser focus on income inequality and Hillary Clinton’s deep entrenchment in the establishment stand in stark opposition. The candidates’ debate has been testy at times.

The GOP has its own, similar struggles between the old guard and outlier candidates — as well as internal debate about who falls where. David French recently looked at Marco Rubio in National Review, pondering the “difference between an establishment candidate and a candidate whom establishment voters can happily support.” He pronounced Rubio the latter.

So if Rubio is the “establishment” candidate, what do you call front-runners Ted Cruz and Donald Trump? Cruz is reportedly gravely disliked among top Republicans. And Trump’s present and history alike are chock-full of conflicting positions, many of which are anything but conservative.

Readers have already picked apart terminology used to refer to the candidates. One emailer objected to Steve Kraske’s Feb. 2 reference to the “the far-right conservatism of Cruz.” Why not similarly label Bernie Sanders’ “far-left socialism,” he wondered.

Another self-identified Republican caller vigorously (and persuasively) argued that Trump should never be referred to as “conservative,” as his sexist and anti-Muslim statements “are the exact opposite of what we’re supposed to be about, which is equality, not discrimination and not special status. Equality.”

I am always appreciative of this attention to the details and I would never disagree that over time, word choices in The Kansas City Star can add up to an overall impression of how readers perceive balance in coverage.

But at the same time, I think it can be misleading to do too much bean counting. I’ve never believed that fairness requires one “up” for every “down.” That’s not how language works, nor is it how humans relay information as complicated as the nation’s often messy and fractious electoral process. Students of history know that’s a grand tradition in American politics.

It’s too early to make grand pronouncements on how equitably Election 2016 has been covered at this point. But I will of course continue to listen closely and relay the best of what readers have to say.

And for those of you who have little patience for the political, I offer my apologies in advance.

Derek Donovan: 816-234-4722, @KCStarPublic

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