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Erik Wemple
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Posted at 08:00 AM ET, 06/28/2011

Bias Watch: The Palin e-mails

BIAS WATCH

Date of Bias Allegation: June 19, 2011

Originator of Bias Allegation (Complainant): Chris Wallace, Fox News

Context of Bias Allegation: On-air interview with “Daily Show” host Jon Stewart

Transcript of Bias Allegation: In a conversation with Stewart, Complainant said, “Even you make fun of the fact that the New York Times and The Washington Post, with this document dump of 24,000 e-mails from Sarah Palin . . . they got so excited about it they asked their readers to help us go through these 24,000 documents. How do you explain the fact that they would do that? They would ask their readers to help them go through the Palin e-mails, as inconsequential as they turned out to be, but they never said help us go through the 2,000 pages of the Obama health-care plan.”

Abridgment of Bias Allegation: Complainant affirms that two newspapers have asked the public to help them criticize a conservative political figure. Complainant also uses a combination of rhetoric and hyperbole to argue that these outlets would not muster a comparable effort in relation to a left-leaning figure (i.e., the mention of the Obama health-care plan).

Vetting of Bias Allegation: Complainant states that the newspapers that directed the crowdsourcing operation did so because they were “excited.” An alternative explanation, however, could account for the appeal. This explanation contains three parts:

1) Outreach. Newspapers are trying more than ever to engage their readership. Crowdsourcing is one dimension of this strategic thrust. Thus, the use of crowdsourcing may be less a reflection of bias than of the newspapers’ commitment to the latest engagement techniques.

2) Competition. A review of the historical record reveals a consistent pattern in document requests by news organizations: When the requester has proprietary rights to a file, it is highly unlikely to release them in a crowdsourcing exercise. Rather, the requester in such an instance usually keeps the documents under wraps to safeguard exclusivity. In the instant case, many outlets received the files at one time. It is apparent that the wide dispersion of the documents gave these outlets an incentive to use whatever means at their disposal to sift through them.

3) Staffing. Both outlets in this example have undergone dips in newsroom staffing over the past decade. That consideration would make it more difficult to examine all the e-mails in question.

As to the complainant’s contention that a crowdsourcing operation might well have targeted the Obama health-care plan, it is unclear just how urgent such a deployment would have been. Two-thousand pages, while a large array of material, constitute a workload well within reach of a newsroom of several hundred FTEs.

Conclusion: BIAS WATCH finds no prima facie evidence of media bias in the instant case. Should the complainant wish to appeal the ruling, the BIAS WATCH Review Panel will be disposed to consider it.

By  |  08:00 AM ET, 06/28/2011

Categories:  bias

 
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