Friday, April 10, 2009

Blade bias in mayoral race

Prediction: Mayoral candidate Jim Moody will NOT get the endorsement from The Blade.

No, not because he's a Republican, though many would think that would be reason enough.

I'm not able to look into the minds of the editorial writer or the publisher to know WHY they won't endorse him, but I can tell they won't because of their coverage of him and his campaign.

Yesterday, Moody outlined his plan for retooling Toledo. It's 2,172 words and it is a detailed listing of several ideas for changing how city government works.

The Blade did carry a story on the plan, "GOP mayoral hopeful offers plan." It's a 206-word article - six paragraphs - and doesn't even make the front of the second section where they usually put important local news articles.

Contrast that with Keith Wilkowski's press conference on creating a business council and offering companies a tax credit if they join the chamber of commerce. The headline of that story was "Wilkowski vows to aid small firms." It's a 260-word article and the headline includes the candidate's name and tells you something about the content of the idea. It doesn't leave you asking 'offers a plan - for what?'

When you do a search on The Blade's website for 'Moody' or 'Jim Moody' you'll find 20 or 16 responses, depending on which name you use. Interestingly, the articles about his entry into the race don't show up, perhaps because the search only goes back 30 days. Here are the headlines:

GOP mayoral hopeful offers plan
Toledo candidate seeks special plates for predators
Mayoral hopeful: Privatize airport
Natural gas pushed for trucks
Moody vows to take businesslike approach to city
Businessman opens office for mayoral campaign bid
Republican to open HQ for Toledo mayor's race

There are other stories in which Moody is mentioned, like when all the candidates signed the Clean Campaign Pledge or when a new candidate entered the race and comments were sought. But note that his name is in the headline only once - and in 'Natural gas pushed for trucks,' you cannot tell this is even an idea from a candidate. It could just as easily be an environmental group lobbying government.

This wouldn't be an issue if it were the same for the other candidates, but it's not. Some might say that Moody is a lesser known candidate, so his name doesn't qualify for headlines - but I'd turn around and ask if the failure to use his name in headlines directly impacts that 'known' aspect - and whether or not it is intentional to omit his name from the headlines in order to NOT increase his name ID.

So here are the mayoral campaign headlines regarding the other declared candidates (remember that Wilkowski has been a declared candidate longer than the others, so he has more):

Lucas County Commissioner Ben Konop:
Critics recall Konop pledge
Commissioner Konop to kick off mayoral bid
Konop tours local firms, talks potential mayoral bid
Konop pursues bid to seek mayor's job
Konop takes step toward bid for mayor

Mike Bell:
Ex-Fire Chief Bell spots crash, pulls woman from wreckage
Ex-chief told plan to governor prior to going public
Bell makes it official, draws flak
Former fire chief Bell to seek mayor's job
Bell resigns as fire marshal
Bell says he's eyeing a run for mayor office

Keith Wilkowski:
Wilkowski vows to aid small firms
Wilkowski suggests tax credit to get investors
Wilkowski loses Web address for mayoral campaign
Mayor questions fit of Wilkowski, PR firm
Wilkowski taps Hart to oversee campaign
Wilkowski leads in cash for mayoral primary race
City urged to rank projects
Wilkowski adds advisory panel
Welcome to the mayor's race
Wilkowski in mayoral race
Wilkowski inches closer to race for mayor
Wilkowski pitches city wind-testing program
Solar panel field sought
Wilkowski poll advances his plans to run for mayor

Note the not-so-subtle bias of including some candidate names in the headline versus others and note which candidates get their names listed first. Also, do you really think the selection of an advertising firm is a news story (as in Wilkowski's case)? The selection of any particular firm will have ramifications for the other candidates because a firm isn't going to have two mayoral candidates as clients. Do you know who the other candidates have selected? Not from The Blade.

Also, look at the nature of the headlines - whether it's positive or negative. On Wilkowski, you have 'pitches wind-testing program,' 'adds advisory panel,' 'leads in cash,' 'suggests tax credit,' and 'vows aid to small firms.' On Bell you have 'resign' and 'draws flak.' On Konop you have an appeal to sympathy as 'critics' attack him. On Moody you have 'seeks special plates' and 'privatize' along with 'businessman' and 'businesslike.'

The impression from the headlines is one of specific and positive ideas from Wilkowski, but not so much from the other candidates. While it's still early in the race and Wilkowski, as I noted above, has more time as a candidate, those factors do not account for today's Moody headline of 'GOP mayoral hopeful offers plan.' They could have used any number of headlines (like 'Moody offers turn-around plan for city,' 'Moody offers plan to retool city,' or even 'Moody offers 5-point plan for city') that included his name and some description of the plan. They even could have focused on just one aspect of the press announcement and used a paragraph to say that other ideas, including x, y, z, were also presented. But they didn't.

These are specific ways in which the coverage is slanted and biased. But there are other things to pay attention to as you watch the coverage of the mayor's race from The Blade:

* placement of story - is it a lead story or buried inside?
* length - how many paragraphs?
* photo - is one included and, if so, is it a complimentary photo or does it make the candidate look ridiculous?
* content - does the article focus on the candidate and whatever idea/program is being promoted, or does it devote most of the story space to the reaction of other candidates?
* opposing views - does the article just cover the candidate's idea/program or does it include comments from all the other candidates? If it includes opposing views, are all the candidates given space for a response (or does it indicate that all candidates were contacted to provide response)?

The Blade's coverage is often one-sided. Now you know what to look for to be able to see just how one-sided it can be.

(SIDE NOTE: I'm currently awaiting a return call from the Moody campaign. I want to know if, as has happened in the past, the coverage of the press conference is so minor because the paper did not have the details ahead of time.

The Blade is well-known for its desire to have candidates give them the contents of a press conference ahead of time so that they can print the details on the day of the event. The idea is that, by the time the TV and radio stations cover it on the day of the event, it's old news for the paper to print it the next morning. As a result, if candidates don't give the paper 'the scoop,' they often find their coverage - well - lacking.

UPDATE: I've just heard from Jim Moody and he said he was informed (I did not ask by whom) of the desire of The Blade to have the contents ahead of time, but that he is treating all media outlets the same and giving them the same information at the same time.

So now the questions are: are the other candidates getting better coverage because they play The Blade's game? Will Moody's lack of preference for the paper's publication times impact their opinion and coverage of him and his events? Does the paper have an obligation to its readers to include mayoral proposals even if they are the day after the event? With the paper's website, could they not provide the same timely coverage as radio and TV and then include a notation in the print version that more details are available on-line?

Watch and see...

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