Around 4:30 p.m. on the day of the Iowa caucuses, we had already signed off on a front-page display that included one dominant photograph when Dennis McGrath, a senior editor in charge of political coverage, raised a concern: Don't we want to give equal treatment to both parties' winners?
With that question, I knew the political season had truly begun.
I have been managing front-page displays on and off for more than a decade, and there is little that causes more frustration in a campaign season than trying to find a way to equally balance the photographs. From a visual perspective, a front page is more arresting if it is dominated by one strong image; page designers and photographers will almost always argue that one picture is better than several of equal size. But give prominent display to a Democrat one day, and the Republicans complain that we are a liberal rag. Lead with a Republican and the Democrats cry foul, regardless of the news value of the story. Some days, campaign workers see bias in the image that we pick, suggesting that we deliberately choose pictures that make candidates look unattractive.
And on it goes. These concerns don't stop at photographs, but extend to headlines, captions, story play, the way we label candidates (conservative vs. liberal), the sources we choose and even the number of paragraphs in a story devoted to one candidate vs. another.
There is good reason for this, of course. Nothing is more important in our country than free, open elections, and the press has a powerful voice in informing the electorate. We lose credibility with readers if we look like we are favoring one candidate or party over time, and we all know that newspapers have the reputation of leaning left.
"This is something we talk about every election cycle, long before the election cycle gets underway," McGrath says. "That starts with making sure we give equal treatment to the kickoff announcements, to how we play stories in individual races. We are constantly judging a story based on what we have done up to that point." That doesn't, however, stop readers or campaign workers from seeing a bias in our decisions.
This year, I have asked McGrath to put together a group of editors, including photographers and copy editors, to examine ways in which political bias can creep into the paper and how we might prevent it. His group will look at everything from how we handle photographs as the campaign progresses to how we ensure that headlines written late at night don't suggest a liberal or conservative bent. We want to bend over backwards to be fair, but we don't want to bend over so far backwards that we aren't telling uncomfortable truths when they need to be told. I believe that readers are more likely to trust us with the truth if they trust that we are being fair.
In Iowa, because it was the first election of the season, we switched gears at McGrath's suggestion and displayed two images of equal size: The Republican victor and the Democratic victor. Next week, when the New Hampshire primary rolled around, we opted for one dominant image and let the news of the evening dictate that decision. At 5 p.m., we thought Republican John McCain was likely to win in New Hampshire, and we believed that would be the freshest news story for our readers. Indeed, if you received an early edition of the paper you got a big photograph of McCain. But McCain's victory had been expected; the surprise of the night was Hillary Clinton's win over Barack Obama, so we switched photos to display her victory. This overnight note from the editor in charge, Paul Klauda, detailed the change:
"We started the first edition with both races called but due to timing we went with a McCain display w/Clinton secondary. Decided for the next run to display Clinton (fresher news) but she didn't appear in time to switch for the start of the metro zones. So South, East and some SW editions will have a fresher McCain display. North, Northwest and hopefully most of SW will have a Clinton display w/the early edition's McCain photo."
I'm not sure what McGrath's group will recommend, but I will share it with readers when he is ready. Meanwhile, at least in these early days of the campaign, we are going to let the story of the day dictate the story play as it did in New Hampshire. However, we'll keep track of our decisions so that campaigns and readers can trust that we give equal play with our photographs over time.
You can weigh in with your thoughts on how we should cover the campaign at www.startribune.com/blogs/editors.