In the cardinal rules of journalism, balance ranks high. But it is a difficult thing for a reporter to achieve. Often that's because in trying to get two sides to a story - or better yet, all sides to a story - a reporter risks giving too much weight to representatives of one side, given how representative that opinion is of the general public.
There are a number of ways to tilt the balance - the number and diversity of people quoted, the amount of words devoted to each side, whether one side is explained first in a story while another is buried, and whether the sources sought for one side are more articulate and/or credible than those sought for the other.
Consider coverage of AB 374, a bill working its way through the state legislature that would set rules by which doctors could help terminally ill patients end their lives. Since our assemblyperson, Patty Berg, is one of the bill's co-sponsors, reporters here have a much-needed "local angle." But it's of interest to people throughout the state, since if enacted it will make California only the second state in the country to allow terminally ill people to end their own lives.
The Eureka Reporter twice devoted stories - one with a front page, five-column banner headline, above the fold - to a group demonstrating in opposition. The Times-Standardran an editorial that supported the bill, saying it came down to a matter of choice. Both papers focused on the controversial aspects of the story - people adamantly for against those adamantly against.
The T-S editorial called the topic "an emotional and very sensitive issue." The paper also ran a long, front-page MediaNews wire feature that called the debate "a topic so controversial that experts agree there's not even a neutral term to describe it." The Reporter likened it to a revival of the abortion debate.
Yet each paper also noted in just about every story, that numerous polls show that some 70 percent of Californians support the measure. To me, that says that this issue, while arguably emotional, isn't all that controversial. Support for it is overwhelming. That's certainly not the sense you get from the Reporter stories. One story about a protest outside Berg's office quoted three people who protested and two reps from Berg's office, framing the issue as Berg against the people. The Times-Standard ran a similar story.
In another Eureka Reporter story headlined "Democratic lawmakers try again to pass assisted-suicide bill," ostensibly about support from Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, focused the first 256 words on support for the measure, but devoted the next 410 words to opposition; it quoted four opponents - a woman who runs a center for independent living, an in-home care provider, the head of the California Catholic Conference, a Republican assemblyman from La Mesa - and led the section this way: "Opponents include the California Medical Association, certain religious organizations and groups advocating for seniors, the poor and the disabled."
In this way, the story framed the debate as Democratic lawmakers versus not only Republican lawmakers but also all doctors, religious people, and old, poor and disabled folks.
When the California Association of Physician Groups, which represents doctors in some 150 medical groups, endorsed AB 374, the 270-word Eureka Reporter story was on page A10, with no byline.
Missing from the Reporter's stories was any in-depth conversation with people the proposed law will directly affect, terminally ill people faced with a terrible dilemma: whether to take each day they have left, possibly in great pain or incapacity, or to shorten that time. The Reporter devoted a Feb. 26 story on suicide to AB374 and began it by talking about a 73-year-old Eureka woman who had killed herself by overdosing on drugs days before scheduled cancer surgery. But there were no voices from terminally ill patients in the rest of the story.
The Times-Standard, in contrast, ran a wire feature from the Sacramento bureau of MediaNews, its parent corporation, that led with two men - Walter Park, a 61-year-old San Francisco resident dying of AIDS who opposes the law, and Tom McDonald, a 77-year-old Oroville man with cancer who said he would shoot himself if the legislature failed to pass the bill. But starting the story this way also implied that support and opposition to the bill are evenly split.
And while the MediaNews story was fairly thorough, I would have preferred to have it localized. Are there no terminally ill people in Humboldt County with valid opinions on the subject? Are there so few people who have dying friends or families that they'd be difficult to find? Or is the problem that regardless of controversy, this is such an emotionally wrenching issue that reporters here are loath to go to someone whose wife, son or parent is slowly, painfully dying and ask that terrible question: Should the law allow your dying loved one to choose a quicker death?
As a police reporter for six months I had to go to people who'd just lost spouses, children or parents to shootings and car accidents and ask them questions. I hated doing that, hence my short stint covering cops and crime. But that was my job. It was vital for the coverage and so I did it, time after time.
Local coverage has failed to address some important questions as well: Should the law pass, would someone in Humboldt County even be able to find a local doctor willing to supply the life-ending drugs? Or would deciding to choose a speedy death mean you would have to leave home to die? That raises another question: If you'd have to leave the county to find the doctor who could help you die by choice, would that limit that choice to those who could afford to leave?
Missing from every story was a breakdown of support or opposition among terminally ill people. I'd like the Harris poll to go to every hospice across the state, and ask as many lucid, dying people what they think. Consider what difference it might make if, in contrast to the 70 percent of all residents in support, it turned out that 70 percent of terminally ill patients were against? Would some opposition soften if it turned out that 80 percent of terminally ill patients wanted the ability to choose the day to die? I wonder.
Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. Please e-mail her with comments about this column or with your take on local media coverage or issues at firstname.lastname@example.org.