Monthly Archives: December 2006

Con without the pro

Often on the Perspective page we feature a pro-con discussion of a controversial issue. A week ago, though, we featured just the “con.” John Emison presented a criticism of the South Grove development, where a one-man referendum cleared the way for city annexation outside the urban growth boundary.,1406,KNS_2797_5216012,00.html
Mayor Bill Haslam called me to object, arguing that we should have presented the other side of the story as well. He has a point. We didn’t seek the “pro” side because the issue was developing rapidly and I feared that waiting for a response piece would delay the timely use of Emison’s submission. I invited the mayor to submit a response, though, and he did. It will publish Sunday and is attached as an extended entry to this post.
Mayor Haslam also said he thought the piece should have disclosed that Emison is paid by Citizens for Home Rule Inc., the organization Emison mentioned in his submission. According to its Web site, Citizens for Home Rule Inc. “is a not-for-profit advocacy organization chartered under Tennessee corporation law in 1980.” It charges dues of $25 per year per household and 5% of business and property taxes for businesses. Its Web site says it is “the most litigious advocacy organization in the State of Tennessee, and we are the City of Knoxville’s most frequent and most successful litigant.” Emison is the corporation’s president.

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Ministers concerned over Kudzu comic

I haven’t received any direct complaints — yet — but I understand some local ministers are expressing concern about our latest addition to the comics page, Kudzu.
Although Kudzu is new to the News Sentinel, it has been around for quite a while. One of the main characters is a preacher, Will B. Dunn, who can be a bit unconventional in dealing with his wacky parishioners.
I knew religion could be a touchy subject for a comic, but the humor struck me as gentle and good-natured. I also took guidance from Charlie Daniel, our longtime editorial cartoonist, who’d been urging me to add Kudzu to our lineup for years.
Charlie has served on the board of Baptist Health System and the Volunteer Ministry, and I trust his judgment. Certainly no offense is intended. We’ll see what develops.

You are what you speak II

In my previous post I described a new University of Chicago study measuring political slant in newspaper articles.
The conclusion of the study: A major factor in a newspaper’s political slant is the political slant of the market it serves. The researchers found the study reflected “an economic incentive for newspapers to tailor their slant to the ideological predispositions of consumers.”
Kind of a no-brainer. So how did the News Sentinel stack up?
Of the seven newspapers evaluated in Tennessee, the Tennessean in Nashville showed the greatest liberal slant, followed closely by The Commercial Appeal in Memphis. More conservative was the Leaf-Chronicle in Clarksville, followed by The Oak Ridger and the Jackson Sun, which were nearly tied. Well into the conservative range was the News Sentinel. Only The Daily Times in Maryville scored further to the right.
An important conclusion of the study was that ownership — corporate or otherwise — showed no statistically significant correlation to political slant, a finding the researchers considered relevant to federal regulation of media ownership.

You are what you speak

I just heard about a fascinating study on newspaper “slant” done by researchers at the University of Chicago. Their methodology was brilliantly simple in concept, though the technical details and statistical analysis are way beyond me.
First, the researchers did a computer analysis of the complete text of the 2005 Congressional Record. Identifying speakers by party affiliation, they found dozens of words and phrases that were more frequently used by one party than the other. For instance, “death tax” was preferred by Republicans, while “estate tax” was preferred by Democrats. These words reflected the “slant” of those politicians.
Next, the researchers went to the national databases that archive newspaper stories and tabulated usage of those same partisan words and phrases in articles.
Then, they calibrated the political leanings of each newspaper’s circulation area by weighing the party of the congressional representative, the percentage vote for George Bush and the distribution of political donations.
Finally, they correlated each newspaper’s use of the politically slanted words and phrases with the political leanings of their circulation areas.
Guess what they found?
You can peek at the study if you like, but I’ll share the outcome in my next posting.

Molly Ivins

Some reades are quick to attribute conspiratorial motives to the newspaper, especially when stories, columns or cartoons of a political nature appear or fail to appear. This is especially true of the Molly Ivins column. Whenever we go a week or two without publishing one of the Texas liberal’s scathing attacks, we are accused of closeting her in deference to East Tennessee conservatives.
Actually, though, Ivins has struggled with severe health problems, which at times have interrupted the flow of her prose. That’s the case right now. We’ve been alerted by her syndicate that “unforeseen circunstances” have prevented delivery of her column over the past few weeks. I don’t know the specifics. But Ivins is battling a third occurrence of breast cancer.
We wish her all the best and hope she returns soon, a feeling I suspect I share with most readers, regardless of their political stripes.

Too close for comfort

At a newspaper, you can get too close to the details of the work and overlook the bigger picture. Sometimes we don’t see the forest for the trees.
The newspaper is assembled in pieces: stories, headlines, photos, page layouts. Different specialists work on different components. The completed whole may not emerge until late at night, minutes before the presses are scheduled to start.
As a result, we sometimes end up with juxtapositions that appear tasteless and insensitive. A couple of months ago, it was a upbeat story promoting the Brewers Jam just below a wrenching piece about a couple being killed by an intoxicated driver. One reader wrote:
“I can only hope that I am not the only person who sees the sad irony that the story about the deaths of Jenilyn and Brandon Franklin was immediately followed on the page by the story about the Knoxville Brewers Jam. That really was beyond tacky and should never have happened.”
This past week, it was the positioning of a story about a soldier’s funeral,1406,KNS_347_5186478,00.html next to a package about an exhumation by UT’s famous “Body Farm” forensics professor Bill Bass.,1406,KNS_347_5186466,00.html

A woman, sounding as though she were almost in tears, left me a message:
“It was despicable that on your Local page you had the headline that said, “War’s reality hits home as soldier laid to rest” next to photos of an exhumation in Anderson County. I don’t even know the family of this soldier, but I’m appalled. I think heads should roll at your newspaper.”
Although such alignments jar some readers, I think many never notice them or are unbothered by them, accepting that the newspaper is a Smorgasbord of news, and unrelated items may appear side-by-side.
Still, we should be more alert to cases in which the juxtapositions might be hurtful.

Idiot shot

Eons ago, when I was just starting out at The Albuquerque Tribune, a local radio talk-show gadfly named Gordan Sanders ran for mayor. He was well-known, charismatic and did pretty well, winning the first round in the non-patisan race, but without a majority, before losing in the run-off.
Gordon’s problem was that he had no real base of political support and no money, so he had to rely on chutzpah. He had plenty of that. One day, to get publicity, he accused the Tribune of intentionally running a photo that made him look bad, and he called a press conference to be held in the Trib’s own newsroom. During the press conference he declared that the photo was what is known in the news business as an “idiot shot,” a picture designed to make someone look stupid.
I hadn’t heard the term “idiot shot” used before then or since, but I’ve pondered that accusation off and on through the years. Sometimes we do shoot photos that make people look foolish. Should we run them, even if they are an accurate reflection of reality? Or should we humanely protect people from the impression they might make through the camera?

The question was put to me again this week. A very upset man left a message after we published a photo of the garbage truck driver who had struck the overpass just west of town. “It’s wrong that you have gone out of your way to publicly humiliate that guy,” the caller said. “There’s no reason to have his picture there.”
I thought it was a good picture that portrayed the man’s humanity as much as anything else. But I can understand how someone might feel differently.