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Community Perspective

Police reform coverage: Only Republicans get to speak

I cannot know whether it is the deliberate intention of reporters and editors at the News-Miner to sway public opinion to the conservative side sometimes. In some instances I think it’s the result of a narrow understanding of what journalism is. Either way, though, the effect is the same.

Two recent page-one articles on police reform illustrate. Following on George Floyd’s death, policing reform has become an intense, national issue. And these articles give prominent and nuanced coverage to Republican views on the subject. But in neither article do readers hear from anyone with an opposing view. No congressional Democrat is quoted, no one from Black Lives Matter, no local person touched by police violence.

The only views expressed, the only quotations included, are the totally in-concert opinions of our like-minded Republican delegation. But standard journalistic practice necessitates that those views be balanced with at least some opposing perspectives.

In conversations with News-Miner staff, I was told that there’s no bias when coverage is limited solely to Republican views if the articles only purport to pass along the views of the Alaska delegation. If, at first glance, that idea sounds acceptable, another moment’s reflection shows its insufficiency.

For starters, our delegation’s views are generally aligned. Nonetheless, it’s a journalist’s job to include a variety of viewpoints and give voice to a range of perspectives — and such commentators needn’t be in our congressional delegation to qualify to be heard.

It is not journalistic best practice for a newspaper — especially in a campaign season — to simply pass through to readers as the news of the day whatever an incumbent tells the paper is the news of the day. At best, that’s stenography. Or sycophancy. At worst, the paper is abandoning professional impartiality and deliberately making common cause with a candidate or party.

When a paper abrogates (or misunderstands) its obligation to bring balance into its coverage, democracy suffers. Our Constitution gives special, specifically enumerated protections to the press. With it comes an obligation to present fairly and neutrally a range of viewpoints on matters of public policy. That way voters might exercise their democratic prerogatives in an informed way.

In the present case, News-Miner readers saw a banner headline atop page one essentially shouting that Democrats are “blocking police reform.” A serious attack, splashily displayed. It seems inconceivable that the reporter sought out not a single Democrat to respond to that damning accusation. Usually, if a paper passes through a smear, the entity being smeared gets a chance to defend itself. Not here.

This same day, the paper did run a wire service article on police reform where a balance of viewpoints on the bills before Congress was represented, but it was deep in the B section, past the crossword and the classifieds. And the only national commentator to address the police reform bills on the Opinion page in this time period was a Fox News contributor who happily trashed the Democrats.

Another problem is passing through, without challenge, assertions the reporter should have known to be factually wrong or illogical. Young is allowed to say that the House bill “does nothing to provide the real reform that Americans are demanding.” But how can Young say the House bill “does nothing” when so many of its provisions overlap with the Senate bill he endorses?

He should have been asked exactly that question. Absent a reply, the reporter should have written something like: “Young’s statement did not clarify how the House bill offers ‘nothing’ in the way of real reform, when so many of its provisions mirror the bill that he supports.”

But Young gets to make that and other impossible assertions in peppery, accusatory language, righteously indignant with Democrats. And the Democrat response? Crickets.

The context for all this is that, led by groups like Black Lives Matter, people all across the country are clamoring for police reform.

Polls show that 95 percent of all Americans want some police reform. And a majority of Black people dispute our delegation’s assessment and say the Senate bill doesn’t go far enough.

Speaking of context, the paper’s coverage of Young, Sullivan, and Murkowski presents them as deeply interested in this civil rights issue. So it’d be fair to set their enthusiasm into the context of their civil rights records.

The NAACP gives Young an “F” on his voting record. Murkowski gets an even lower “F.” Her votes align with NAACP priorities only 23% of the time. Sullivan’s “F” is lower still (7%) and one of the bottommost records in the Senate. Those are facts. They are pertinent. And they are absent.

Also totally missing from News-Miner coverage of the two bills are views from leading candidates running against our delegation in this election. As these campaigns heat up, the views of Al Gross who is challenging Sullivan, and Alyse Galvin, who is currently leading Young in the US House race, should be sought and fairly presented to News-Miner readers.

A good example of this sort of coverage appeared last month in a piece by Erin McGroarty on local Democratic legislators applying policing reform ideas to our specific situation in Alaska.

Dan O’Neill of Fairbanks is the author of “The Firecracker Boys,” “The Last Giant of Beringia” and “A Land Gone Lonesome.”

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