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Commentary

Was response to governor 'warm' or 'chilly'?

An instance of media bias?

The Chronicle, top, and Mercury News, framed the MLK breakfast quite differently in their headlines.

Did Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger get a "chilly reception" at a breakfast honoring Martin Luther King Jr. Monday, as the Oakland Tribune reported? Or was it a "surprisingly warm welcome," as the San Francisco Chronicle reported? Or was it "hostile," as the San Jose Mercury News reported?

If news media are objective, why such disparate headlines? After all, they were reporting the very same event.

Despite apparently conflicting headlines, I think all three newspapers accurately reported the event and acted within the boundaries of contemporary "journalistic objectivity." But the differences in their accounts illustrate how much journalism's version of objectivity differs from science's.

Editors generally trust reporters to act like umpires -- to "call them as they see 'em." Psychologists have taught us that what people see is based on what they expect to see, what they've experienced in life, and -- for journalists -- what they've been coached to consider newsworthy.

Governor addresses a Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast. (Noah Berger, AP Photo.)

Scientific observation often takes places in a controlled environment like a laboratory. When it takes place in the field, subjectivity is diminished by agreed upon definitions of what's under examination. Journalists, on the other hand, observe -- hurriedly -- amid the great buzzing confusion of life. Even within the "objective" model, reporters enjoy considerable interpretive latitude.

Veteran Chronicle political writer Carla Marinucci's experience led her to expect fireworks. So she described the audience's response at the annual King breakfast this way:

A tough crowd -- the toughest -- was supposed to be on hand when Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger showed up unexpectedly Monday.... But instead of handing him his head, as expected, most of the A-list crowd of Democrats, community and labor leaders -- including many who led bitter opposition to the governor's special election -- gave him a warm and welcoming hand.

The Tribune's Josh Richman wrote:

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger got a chilly reception Monday at a labor and community breakfast celebrating the life and works of civil rights icon the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

Bracketed by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi's oblique criticism and a local labor leader's direct attack, the Republican governor spoke for 10 to 15 minutes about how King's legacy of public service had influenced his own entrance into public policy and politics.

Laura Kurtzman, an experienced reporter in the Mercury News-Contra Costa Times Sacramento bureau, reported:

After a few scattered boos, the audience listened politely to his speech and laughed at his Terminator jokes. But when it was over, Tim Paulson, executive director of the San Francisco Labor Council, got up on the dais and harangued the governor for "attacking all of us in our community."

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, who spoke before the governor took the microphone, pointedly said the special election Schwarzenegger called in November was a threat to Martin Luther King and the ideals for which he fought.

All three reporters noted that many in the crowd wanted to walk out when the governor took the stage -- a view more consistent with what Ms. Kurtzman reported as a "hostile crowd" than Ms. Marinucci's description of "Schwarzenegger's smooth sailing."

So was the Chronicle's report inaccurate, or worse, biased?

John McManus

I wasn't at the breakfast, but if you read the three reports side by side, they agreed much more than differed. No quotes or background information -- principally a poll about the governor's popularity -- were contradictory, only the subjective assessment of the breakfast-goers' reaction to the governor.

The Chronicle's Marinucci may have been stretching a bit for a fresh angle -- attempting to attract the reader's eye with the theme of things being different from expected: Mr. Schwarzenegger faced a labor crowd and wasn't pelted with tomatoes.

But you could also argue, as she does below, that she provided readers a broader context for the governor's appearance.

And the headlines, which editors rather than reporters write, were less at odds than they appear. The Chronicle employed a weasel word -- "surprisingly." A "surprisingly warm welcome" may or may not be cordial. It depends on what you expected.

"It's pretty unusual to see such opposite summations of a situation," said Phil Trounstine, the director of San Jose State University's Survey and Policy Research Institute, who for many years was the Mercury News' top political reporter. "But it's not uncommon that reporters see things differently depending on the context they bring to the circumstances.

"People accept that a reporter can't escape his or her own world view. But he can be fair. I think both stories were fair. But they demonstrate that you can't disentangle the observer from the observed."

The political impression on those who just read headlines, or read only the first few paragraphs, would likely be more positive for the governor in the Chronicle than in the other two papers. The Chronicle's headline suggests that the governor is popular even with his political foes.

But one story doesn't make a pattern. As Mr. Trounstein pointed out: "Carla's generally pretty tough on Schwarzenegger.

Ms. Marinucci described her news judgment in an e-mail:

I called it the way I saw it, based on my reporting there. And so did my colleagues.

From what I learned, it was a labor event filled with people who didn't like Arnold; many said they were going to walk out. And by the time Willie Brown delivered his effusive intro, there was not only no walkout, but people like Carol Migden told me they decided to tone it down.

I compared this to Nancy Pelosi's SF appearance last weekend, in which she was the object of intense anger by anti-war protesters and hecklers. By contrast, the governor faced no hecklers, confronted no angry criticism directly, and was treated with respect. I've seen lots of angry receptions for the governor, and in my humble view, this wasn't one of them.

Note all three reporters had some similar themes, we all mentioned the scattered boos, the labor criticism, and that many laughed at his jokes. Our headlines were very different. But we don't write the headlines.

We all might be better served by retiring the word "objectivity" as applied to journalism.

What do you think? Discuss it in The Coffeehouse.

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