Letter from the Editor: Reader concerns range from bias to the comics

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I’m taking this opportunity to address a few consistent reader peeves. Those are pesky things that particularly irk readers … and editors, to be honest.

The top reader complaint is actually one that is outside my control: newspaper delivery issues.

Perhaps because my name and email are listed daily on Page A2, I hear from subscribers with circulation questions or concerns. I am always happy to try to help, but a quicker and better route is to contact customer service (503-221-8240).

The second most common complaint by my unscientific count is bias. Typically, a reader is pointing out something he perceives as a leftist slant to coverage. Here’s a reader’s email about a front-page article last month:

“At best, in my opinion, it could be accurately characterized as a political advertisement. It most certainly was not NEWS, which is what a ‘newspaper’ (is) supposed to print. In my opinion over the years The Oregonian has printed more and more articles that are not truly news. Perhaps the words of Sergeant Joe Friday from the black and white TV show ‘Dragnet’ should be the goal of The Oregonian: ‘Just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.’”

I find it difficult to address sweeping claims of bias, so I usually ask readers to tell me more about what specifically prompted their comment.

In this case, the reader cited a discrepancy between a business article and the accompanying caption. The article said a woman, whose story was illustrating the effect of the loss of child tax credit payments, had “left” her job at the start of the pandemic when her employer would not let her work from home. The caption with the photograph said she had “lost” her job.

“One statement might elicit sympathy,” he said, “while the other might not since she put herself and family in the (position) they are in by a voluntary act on her part.”

Some readers might see this as a distinction without a difference — that is, she lost work because she was forced to leave. Others might see framing the situation as “losing” her job as an attempt to paint the woman as a victim rather than someone responsible for the fix she is in.

A difference of just one word — but it loomed large for this reader. That’s not unusual. Often, a concern about bias comes down to a bit of wording within an article, the choice of a photograph, the headline. We may see it as a tiny part of the entire package presented to readers, but some readers see it as a subtle — or not so subtle — attempt to shape a narrative.

I looked at the website of The Washington Post, which had written the article, and saw that the caption there said “left” her job. I tracked down the file that had been sent to us for use and the caption said “lost” her job. It may be that the inconsistency was caught and fixed by the Post but the wire service did not issue a correction to alert us to the change.

Another recent example of perceived bias involved a photograph of a man killed by police on Interstate 205. The article detailed in depth the man’s extensive arrest record, his history of violence, the fact he brandished a gun at police before he was shot and killed.

The photograph showed him holding his infant daughter. Some readers saw this as the newspaper trying to put its thumb on the scale about how readers should view the fatal shooting. In fact, he was the father of a young child, struggled with opioid addiction and had been violent toward family members. Is one of those things truer than the others?

The final category of reader pet peeves is a catch-all: grammar and usage errors, sins of commission and omission, and the comics pages.

First, the comics. I recently received a reader complaint from someone who was offended by the mention of “suppositories” in “The Duplex” strip. If you are in the habit of reading the comics with your grandkids, there are some things you’d probably rather not have to explain.

My typical response, as with all media, is that it might be best for adults to screen it before sharing with young children.

As for omissions, we published an in-depth piece about the new Ritz-Carlton condo and hotel tower construction and did not list its street address. That’s a legitimate complaint and we added it to the story.

Last, a sports reader sent me this: “This morning I wanted to scream and throw my iPad across the kitchen. … In the story about the Arizona vs. UCLA basketball game last night, the writer used the term ‘grinded out,’ a truly horrible choice … since the word ‘grinded’ does not exist.”

He was referencing an article by The Associated Press, which has a stylebook for many sports terms. I didn’t find a ruling on this usage so have to agree that it is non-standard.

Some sports idioms are best left to broadcast journalists, just for the sake of iPads everywhere.

Note: Thanks to all of you who have contributed to support our Report for America education reporting position, from the $2,000 donor to the $20 donor. Every contribution helps. Checks can be made out to Oregonian Publishing Co. Public Benefits Inc. and mailed to Oregonians Federal Credit Union, attn: The Oregonian Education Reporting Lab, 336 N.E. 20th Ave., Portland OR 97232.



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