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4.14.2004

LA Times, Bias, the Feature and the Column

Instead of concluding that news Features and Columns should be excluded from the debate on bias at the Los Angeles Times, should we ask if the Feature and the Column, not included on the Op-Ed page, can be used to examine whether the LA Times has an institutional bias on a particular issue when it claims to be impartial? If so, should the Times require balance in Features and Columns, or in the case of the examples below about homosexuality, have a Feature and a Column about a preacher, a lawyer, a rape victim opposed to homosexual civil rights that is sympathetic towards their points-of-view?

I pick this topic because it is the only one in the LA Times over the last couple weeks that I noticed was covered by several articles, a Feature and a Column, all of which can be referenced for the question about “liberal bias” or "conservative bias" at the LA Times.

By Feature, I mean a story that focuses on a person, persons or event and primarily focuses on their point- or points-of-view of a person or group. Opposing opinions can be included but are not required, and do not take the focus away from the main focus. By Column, I mean once again to reference those that are included in the news sections rather than the Op-Ed page which we earlier agreed to exclude from consideration.

An example of an article that I think falls under the definition of Feature can be found in Monday’s Los Angeles Times’ article “Gay Son's Cause Lives On in Fund at UC Riverside, A woman who had to 'grow up' after learning a secret helps other gay students,” by Staff Writer Sandra Murillo.

The article focuses on the noble efforts of a mother who lost her son to AIDS and now is helping financially another young man with AIDS to finish college. The article does not offer opposing viewpoints because in part it does not bring up contentious points associated with the debated over the homosexual civil rights movement. Nor are the three baseball players who are accused in the article of harassing the mother’s son in 1981 interviewed to get their side of the story. In short, the article centers around the viewpoint of a grieving and heroic mother. Does a simple Feature such as this which is sympathetic to or may create sympathy for one side of a political issue count as bias? If so, can bias on an institutional level be determined based on such Features?

Similarly, columnist Dana Parson in today’s column “Anti-Gay Quote Even Upsets Sheldon” focuses on comments made by Rev. Lou Sheldon who, as Parson’s describes him “has been upsetting gays since the early 1970s.”

If we are to focus on "Bias," let's consider the Feature and Column and begin with the questions: Can the Feature and Column be considered bias? Should certain topics be excluded from the Feature and Column? If not excluded, should there be a balance in the number of Features and Columns which represent two viewpoints on a particular topic whether gay rights, gun-control, abortion, the death penalty or the war in Iraq? Does this fall under the meaning of “bias”?

Three other news articles have appeared, the first on April 11 by Staff Writer Elizabeth Mehren “Acceptance of Gays Rises Among New Generation,” a headline that may appear to forecast bias towards the homosexual civil rights movement in the article by focusing on “acceptance” but which in fact balances the number of opinions on both sides of the debate on homosexuality.

Two other articles in an ongoing series by Staff Writer Kimi Yoshino focus on a battle in the Westminster School District outside of Los Angeles over the acceptance of a state mandate that allows school employees and students to define their own gender. The April 13 story is “School Gender Bias Fight Taken to the Brink” while the April 14 story is “Westminster Awaiting a High-Stakes Verdict.”

-S. Schudy
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