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Voters the 'problem'? Cheney 'spewing'? Says who?

May 28, 2009 |  1:18 pm

Readers asking last week about a Top of the Ticket blog posting that ran in print, as well as a front-page analysis, had one thing in common: They were objecting to what they called opinion, even bias, in the news pages of The Times. 

Voters 'share the blame' -- The front-page analysis the day after the election brought many comments like this from Andrew Dunn of San Diego: "I find the article offensive both towards California's democratic process and towards those voters who chose to reject 1A-1E yesterday. The article appears as an analysis piece but clearly presents only one side of the story. It masquerades opinion as a news story, in other words."

The May 20 analysis by Times reporter Michael Finnegan can be summed up by its fourth paragraph: "Nearly a century after the Progressive-era birth of the state's ballot-measure system, it is clear that voters' fickle commands, one proposition at a time, are a top contributor to paralysis in Sacramento."

Numerous readers took offense at a piece they saw as simply opinion. They objected to being called "fickle"; one called the story "blatantly anti-American, anti-democratic." They also thought it was wrong. "Contrary to the front-page report on the voters’ rejection of Propositions 1A through 1E," wrote Joseph Benti of Camarillo, "we are neither 'fickle' about our vote nor do we 'relish' doing our legislators’ jobs for them. Our taxes pay for the most expensive, law-happy Legislature in California history, outrageous perks and all. Aside from a reporter’s conviction that 'we failed to do our jobs,' Sacramento shows no tangible sign it understands how to do its job."

Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter, who oversees California coverage, is familiar with the overall point readers often raise about stories labeled analysis.

"We frequently hear from readers who say that articles labeled 'news analysis' appear biased," Lauter wrote after being shown several reader reactions. "And if by 'bias,' we mean that an article states a clear point of view as opposed to a neutral recitation of events, then, yes, that’s what a news analysis is supposed to do. An analyst’s job is to take news events that have been reported and give a sense of a broader context into which those events fit. That necessarily means enunciating a clear position. A news story can say 'people on one side said this, people on the other side said that.' An analysis which read that way would be useless."

What does he tell readers who say they want only news stories? "In a news environment in which the headlines and basic facts of most news events are widely available, many  readers value analysis by reporters who have experience in a particular topic. We know not all readers do, and that’s one of the reasons why we clearly label analytical stories, so that readers will understand what to expect when they start reading."

As for the May 20 piece specifically, wrote Lauter, the "analysis was that voters’ conflicting commands at the ballot box have been a big part of the problem and that often those voter decisions have been inconsistent from one year to the next (hence 'fickle') and don’t fit together into a coherent budget policy (hence 'contradictory'). Lots of others who have analyzed the problem agree. Readers are entitled to disagree."

Top of the Ticket on paper: Arthur Marquis was among several who questioned the tone -- and more -- of a piece that ran in Section A on May 17, a story that was published first on the Top of the Ticket blog  that runs on Steve Padilla on the National desk edits the national politics blog, which is (as it says in print) a "blend of news, commentary and analysis." Padilla also picks some of the items from the blog to be published in Sunday's print edition, in Section A. The excerpts published on May 17 brought complaints from several readers, who cited in particular one passage that referred to former Vice President Dick Cheney "spewing his critiques about the Obama administration." As reader Marquis wrote of the column, "What was the point of it? It wasn’t news and if included anywhere in the L.A. Times should have been with the editorial pieces. Substitute the name 'Al Gore' for Cheney’s to get a flavor for what I am talking about. Did Al Gore ever 'spew' in any Times article? They both hold sincere views and have a right to be heard on national issues, don’t they? It was a purely partisan hatchet job using mockery and innuendo as entertainment for the people who like that sort of thing."

For starters, say editors on the National desk, it should be made more evident to readers that the story they were reading was taken from a blog, and as such is a combination of analysis and opinion. Padilla says that he intends to make sure the print version will carry an introduction to inform readers that they're about to read commentary, not straight news reporting. (Typically the column has run a line at the bottom advising readers that it's taken from a blog.) Says Padilla, “This is a reminder that, ironically, we don’t always explain ourselves well in the media. Because I see the Ticket all the time -- and am familiar with the conventions of many blogs -- certain things don’t hit me the way they do readers. So the reader's comment on this particular post was very helpful.”

As far as the tone, though, he and National Editor Roger Smith differ a bit on "spewing," reflecting the sometimes awkward melding of online and print voices. Both editors are all for making it clear to readers that the column first appeared on a blog. Says Smith, "We’re in a different environment with blogs, and Steve’s idea to label 'Top of the Ticket' will go a long way to helping readers understand why and how the language is framed." On tone, though, Smith thinks readers might have a point: "While 'spew' would pass muster in a partisan column where the writer is clearly venting, it probably is more of a distraction, and detraction, even in a labeled Top of the Ticket."

Padilla, who edits multiple posts each day on the blog, says he didn't find the language objectionable, but notes that he's used to reading Top of the Ticket in its natural setting. Maybe it passed muster with him, he says, "because it was far more tame than other things I’m used to seeing on the Ticket." When taking excerpts for the Sunday paper, Padilla does reject some posts he knows would seem out of place in print.

Should Cheney have been cited in print as "spewing his critiques" then, or not? It's a sign of how editors still juggle the differing sensibilities of writing for the web vs. print that Smith ended his e-mail on the subject: "This is certainly a point of discussion for writer and editor."