Tuesday, May 09, 2006

No bias this time

Conservative/Libertarian blogger Patterico made an error today with his post lambasting the Los Angeles Times for a biased "article" on Fox News. The piece is actually a television column, and columns are by their nature expected to take a personal view.

I agree with Patterico that it's strange to emphasize a decline in Fox's ratings and downplay a much larger decline in the ratings of CNN, its main rival. But it's not an example of the Times' bias, just the opinion of one columnist. He takes the same facts as Patterico does and reaches a different conclusion. As long as it is understood to be opinion, this is fine.

This columnist/article distinction is standard in the newspaper business. The piece would indeed be wrong as a news article, and I hope that the Times has published a fair and balanced news article pointing out the cratering of CNN's audience.

Patterico is a zealous chronicler of the Times' misdeeds, alleged and real. He should slow down and think more before posting. There are quite enough problems with the Times as it is without inventing imaginary ones.

Patterico wasn't too happy with my distinction. In his haste to criticize the Times, he didn't read the column completely. And in fairness, the column tag at the end and the "Channel Island" label at the top is too subtle for the online edition. It should be better labeled.

We had a somewhat testy exchange on his blog about this. To his credit, Patterico said he will correct his error.


Just to emphasize, I am not defending the columnist's strange interpretation of the facts. That strained interpretation is a ripe target for rebuttal. But it is not a violation of journalistic ethics or anything like that. Had this column indeed run as a news story, it would be totally improper journalistically. The first clue I had that it might be a column was that the language is so plainly out of place with the style of regular news stories. It was then that I looked for the column tag.

This episode illustrates that the Times needs to take greater care in how it presents its writing on the Web. The printed page has all sorts of subtle clues such as typography, shading and boxes that inform the reader of the distinctions between news articles, features, columns, etc. So the Times' Web designers need to develop ways to give this same instantly identifiable perceptual difference.

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