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Public Editor Sylvia Stead responds to readers and gives a behind-the-scenes look

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President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney interact during the second presidential debate, Oct. 16, 2012. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)
President Barack Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney interact during the second presidential debate, Oct. 16, 2012. (LUCAS JACKSON/REUTERS)

Public Editor: It’s okay to pick a winner in a debate Add to ...

There is nothing like politics to spark a great debate. I say that as a life-long fan of politics and political news coverage and I certainly loved watching the three U.S. debates so far for their policies, their spin and the skilled performances of the presidential and vice-presidential candidates. But I also say that as public editor because nothing causes our comment boards to explode like political coverage and those debates can be fierce. At times, readers will accuse reporters and columnists of bias and favouritism in the newspaper’s coverage.

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This week, I have heard from a few readers who have objected to the newspaper’s coverage of Tuesday night’s presidential debate.

One complained (in an all caps e-mail) about the front page photo showing Mr. Obama in clear focus and Mr. Romney out of focus in the background. Calling it “clear bias,” the reader said, “COULD YOU HAVE BEEN MORE CLEAR THAT YOU FAVOR MR. OBAMA IN THE UPCOMING US ELECTION.” The reader didn’t point this out, but a second photo inside the paper also showed Romney blurry and Obama in clear focus.

Two others objected to a web story the next day with the headline, "Five attacks Obama (finally) landed during the second debate." Those readers said the addition of the word finally in brackets made it clear the newspaper favoured Obama.

There is no question The Globe and Mail, and many other media, deemed Obama the winner of the second presidential debate. I looked back at coverage of the previous vice-presidential debate and presidential debates and found that the vice-presidential debate was deemed a tie and the first presidential debate story said Romney won. The photos were different in various editions, but on Oct. 4, the front page and inside photos either showed Romney making a strong point and Obama looking down at his podium or one showing the two men smiling at each other shaking hands.

The next day, the story was all about Romney’s success including a story called “a feather in Romney’s cap”, which talked about the rave reviews for his performance and compared “a sullen and irritable Mr. Obama [to] smiley and avuncular Mr. Romney....”

While I received no complaints about perceived pro-Romney coverage at that time, it is clear to me that the coverage has been balanced. Part of news coverage is noting a winner in a debate and also noting that Obama finally, yes finally, after a weak performance in the first debate, did perform better the second time. Our readers expect experienced political reporters and columnists to do more than just report on what was said. They need to explain what went right and wrong, why it matters and what the candidates need to do in the campaign - without showing favouritism or bias toward either side.

The one issue I agree with the readers on is the photographs. On Oct. 4, the day after the first debate, the photos showed Romney in a positive light (making a strong point and Obama looking down) or were neutral, showing a grip-and-grin type shot with the men both smiling. That would reflect the debate with Romney as winner, but showed some balance. This Wednesday, both photos showed Obama making a strong point in focus and Romney out of focus. While I would defend the use of the photo once, greater balance should have been found in the second photo.

 

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