MPR, Selective Labeling, and Bias
Two days ago I commented on the the selective labeling of "conservative" advocacy group Education Watch in the Minnesota Public Radio report about the new social studies standards. I felt the example was egregious enough to merit further inquiry with MPR. So I emailed them the link to my Fraters post and asked them for a response to these two questions:
First, why was the complete name of "Parents United for Public Education" not used in the article, (instead only "Parents United" was used). Secondly, why was Education Watch labeled as "conservative" and while Parents United for Public Education had no qualifier whatsoever?
To their credit, both of my contacts at MPR were responsive and respectful - which is exactly the disposition I want in government employees. Below is the response from the MPR correspondent (via an intermediary) and then my response to him:
The chairwoman of the House Education Policy Committee, Rep. Barb Sykora, R-Excelsior, introduced Mary Cecconi as a representative of Parents United. Mary Cecconi introduced herself as a board member of Parents United. I was not previously aware of this group and had no reason to believe its own representative would misidentify the name. This is simply a case of my reporting imprecision, nothing else.
I was inclined to identify EdWatch/Maple River Coalition as a conservative group because of my preceding sentence: "The latest complaints are coming from across the political spectrum." I felt some obligation at that point to identify where their complaint fell on that spectrum. I had no idea where the previous group fell. That's about as much thought as I put into it. This script was edited and approved.
I have reported often on the activities of EdWatch/Maple River Coalition and interviewed their representatives. They are conservative. I also have the utmost respect for them and their viewpoints. To suggest otherwise is just wrong.
Mr. Ward should be commended for his vigilance. I welcome the criticism of my writing and reporting any time. However, he has made many assumptions about MPR news and me that are not based in fact. Mr. Ward does not know me and should not infer that I have some sort of reporting agenda. I take particular offense to him calling me a partisan political hack.
Please pass this note and my phone number along to Mr. Ward. I would be pleased to discuss these issues further if he wishes.
Hi - Brian Ward here, your indirect correspondent on matters of bias the past 24 hours. I'd like to thank you for your thoughtful response. It's not a courtesy I'm used to in dealing with other media organs, therefore it is much appreciated. I now realize I should have been corresponding with you directly, instead of through the main MPR email address, so my apologies to others for bringing them into this.
First things first, I never referred to you as a partisan political hack. That term, as used in the Fraters Libertas piece, was a sarcastic reference to Education Watch. The intent was to hyperbolically characterize the MPR tone towards this organization, based on your selective use of labels for it. So please, take no offense.
I think your excuses for the selective labeling of Education Watch and the misreporting the name of Parents United for Public Education are plausible and I believe you. But "reporting imprecision" and failing to properly do research doesn't mean the piece isn't an example of biased reporting. At least not in its effect. You politicized one group with a value laden term ("conservative" - which many on the Left would consider a negative value), while draping the other in universally positive term with no political context ("united" and "parents"). These provide subtle cues for the listener/reader to judge the content of what someone is saying. It allows prejudices to color what is supposed to be a news report.
Understand, I'm not necessarily against the use of labels. A sophisticated news consumer can use these to help put information in the proper context. The problem is the selectivity of it. You can't do it for one if you're not going to do it for the other. The rule should be everyone gets labeled or no one does.
If I may offer you some unsolicited advice, next time you decide to call a group "conservative" based on your preconceptions, take a look at your story and see if there are any other groups referenced. If so, how should they be politically characterized? If you've never heard of them before and don't know, do a quick Internet search. It took approximately 1 minute on Google to find everything on Parents United for Public Education.
Furthermore, if you're in the business of reporting education news, I would think it would be important to know a little something about the types of groups that are testifying before an education committee. Especially ones you choose to quote as having something important to say on the matter. Instead, it seems you consciously realized you didn't know anything about them, so you just took them at face value. Is that the standard you apply to all your sources?
Finally, you don't seem to be aware that selective labeling of organizations (or individuals) is a HUGE issue among Conservatives. Something that has been pointed to for years by nationally prominent commentors as conclusive evidence of media bias. (Do some Google searching on the topic, you'll be amazed what you find). After your research, if you find that you personally don't believe selective labeling regularly takes place or that people like you could possibly inject bias into reporting (or non reporting), why not clean up the copy anyway, just as a gesture to the concerns of a large segment of your audience?
In the interest of fairness, I won't use this bully pulpit do a more complete yet one-sided rending of the MPR comments (even though they're ripe for it). They were good enough to engage the conversation, so I'll let the exchange stand on its own without piling on after the fact. But if any of you dear readers would like to comment further, I'd like to hear your thoughts.