Fair and Balanced: The Standard of Modern Journalism, Right?

What We Expect from our Media

fair and balancedThe phrase "fair and balanced" has become an earmarked slogan often brandished by the Fox News network.  It's not meant to signify "lacking ideological bias" or "always accurate", but simply representing both sides of an issue.  The point is that it's not the job of the media to lack ideology, but to provide multiple perspectives so viewers have the tools they need to make informed decisions.

Taking the Local Media to Task

Last week, El Conquistador ran an article questioning why a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel omitted noteworthy information from a news report.  Here is the background.

On June 24th, a 13 ton concrete panel fell from the O'Donnell Parking structure killing a 15 year old boy.  The tragic accident immediately raised concerns about the stability of other county buildings.  So Scott Walker, encouraged by the Architecture and Engineering Department, hired an engineering contractor called Graef-USA to inspect more than 100 county properties.

On July 11th, watchdog reporter Daniel Bice discovered that the county awarded Graef-USA a no-bid contract.  It was also determined that Graef had contributed more than $14,000 to Scott Walker in the past 8 years.  The story was appealing for two reasons.  First, Walker is running for governor.  And second, it appears that there is some sort of cronyism at the county level - at least on the surface.  Quite naturally then, the story about Walker premiered on the front page of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Two days later, Bice's colleague Tom Held reported that the Department of Transportation had awarded the same engineering company with a contract to inspect the Hoan Bridge.  However, Held neglected to report that this was a no-bid contract arranged by Governor Doyle, who had received 3 times as much from Graef as Walker did.  While Bice's story about Walker debuted as a major story on the front page, Held's report about the Hoan Bridge was buried in the local section. 

Dialogue with the Journal Sentinel

We contacted reporter Held and asked why he had omitted the information.  He said that Bice had already run a story linking Graef's contributions to Doyle and didn't see the need to include it in his story.  He also said he didn't have sufficient space available inclining him to focus on more immediate news.

Indeed, in an earlier story, Bice did indicate that Graef-USA had contributed funds to Doyle.  But it's unlikely that the casual reader would have made that same connection here since the article made no mention of Governor Doyle or the no-bid contract.  

We also contacted Deputy Managing Editor Thomas Koetting for more clarification.  He said,

"Tom Held's article on July 14 was focused on repair work that needed to be done on the bridge, and the impact it would have on motorists. Dan Bice's column focused on a political - and financial - relationship between the governor and a business. While both stories pertained to the Hoan bridge, they were focused on two completely different issues. "

Koetting makes a valid point.  Held didn't write a political piece.  He focused on the inspections and necessary repairs for the Hoan Bridge, which was a legitimate story worth covering.  We agree with Koetting, but we take issue with how the stories were prioritized.  We believe that if a story about Walker was relevant enough to headline on the front page, then Held's story on Doyle should not have been relegated to the local section - especially with no mention of Doyle, Graef's political contributions, or the no-bid contract.

But to their credit, the Sentinel corrected the problem.  After we ran a story critical of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Daniel Bice followed up with a piece on Doyle's no-bid contract with Graef that received an equal amount of attention.  It is evident to us, therefore, that Bice saw what was missing in Held's report and acted swiftly.  By including a sequel report, Bice not only proved he has a penchant for probing into both sides of the political isle, but that his journalism was fair and balanced.

 

Conclusion

It's election season, and there are many special interest groups actively involved in the upcoming gubernatorial election.  For this reason, it is more important than ever that our local media presents the news in a fair and balanced way.  We recognize that the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel did the right thing by running the Doyle/Graef story, but it's even more important that the local media makes balanced coverage a priority on a regular basis.


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