On bias

His deadline is at night and so, when the meeting wraps up at 10:30 p.m., he’s got just 30 minutes to write.

The page is set and he’s been given a space to fill: no more, no less.

My deadline is the next morning, and though I’m beyond tired with sandpaper eyelids when I stumble into work after six hours of sleep, I have two hours to write.

My story is longer, more comprehensive, because it can be.

He gets the angry calls: why can’t he be more like the Gazette? Why doesn’t he tell the whole story?

It’s not unusual, having people read bias into things we can’t control, like meetings ending 30 minutes before deadlines.

I once was accused of bias against the Navy and homeschoolers, because in a story about two dogs vying for an award, the more interesting dog had a bigger piece of the article than the other.

I was homeschooled K-12, so it was surprising to learn of my bias against myself.

But it goes the other way too. Sometimes I get credit for things I didn’t do.

There’s been a sad story unfolding and I came in on the second half. A young father was trying to relight his woodburning stove with kerosene when a ball of fire shot out. He and two small boys were flown to the hospital, where the 4-year-old died.

That was all written by someone else. I came on this week, when a couple people who had not met the family decided to help. The family and their friends are Amish, so the one man gave a ride to a group of their friends. He learned of their financial needs while waiting at the hospital, told his sister, and they established a trust fund and emailed us.

I wrote the story on a late Saturday morning, typing quickly because I wanted to catch a ride home instead of walking 3/4 of a mile in the snow.

Late Saturday night, someone else put it on the front page of our paper, in the lower right hand corner.

As it turned out, the story was below a picture of Whitney Houston. And the man I’d been speaking to was ecstatic. He called me Monday morning, on deadline, effusive in his thanks and praise. It was a wonderful article. He couldn’t believe what a wonderful article it was. He was “flabbergasted” when he saw it on the front page, and under Whitney Houston’s picture, so everyone would see it!

I weakly tried to give up the credit for placement, and I really don’t think editors thought about the Whitney Houston picture drawing eyes down the page, but he wasn’t having it. When I thanked him for his help with the story, he started again with his praise.

I’d certainly rather take unwarranted credit than unwarranted blame.

(The story doesn’t have a good ending. The father died less than 24 hours after my story ran, leaving four children ages seven and under, including the 5-year-old still recovering from burns. The trust fund will be used to cover as much of their expenses as possible.)

But to those of you who pick up a paper now and then, may I encourage you to be careful before calling bias? The short treatment that story got might just be due to a deadline pushed to the breaking. The lack of quotes from the other side of an argument could be due to phone calls left unanswered. Bias is a serious accusation to someone whose job depends on their credibility. It shouldn’t be made lightly.


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Filed under Notebook sketches, Opinions

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