It’s all about local at The Leader, which strives to provide community news that no one else can. National media outlets don’t bother to report on issues involving area homeowners associations, happenings at schools in Northwest Houston or the latest shopping center to take shape.
In turn, we generally don’t concern ourselves with things that happen outside of the Heights, Garden Oaks, Oak Forest or other nearby neighborhoods.
Last week, though, we took a step out of our wheelhouse and delved into national politics – specifically the race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But we still kept it local, going to a polling place in the area to seek out perspectives of voters from the community.
Our community has proven to lean decidedly to the left, with Democrats holding most of the elected offices – at the local, state and federal levels – that are charged with serving area citizens. So the focus of the story we published was the sentiment held by those local Democrats ahead of the March 3 primary, because they would be helping to decide which candidate faces President Donald Trump in the November election.
A sampling of those Democrats told me they preferred different candidates – Bernie Sanders, Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden, who ended up winning Harris County and the Texas primary on Tuesday – and said their chief objective is making sure the Republican Trump is not reelected. So that’s what I reported.
A few days after story was published, I received an email from a man named Bill Newman that included the following: “I just can’t resist commenting on the fact that, in my opinion, the article is grossly slanted to the Left and that you obviously had your own agenda. I believe there were three small paragraphs tucked in towards the end of the article addressing a Republican opinion.”
Less than an hour later, I received another email from a man named Roy Newton. It said, “Greatly enjoyed your jocular, tongue in cheek article on local Dem’s aspirations. Your keen sense of humor put me in a better frame of mind. Please keep up the good work.”
So one reader thought I was biased toward Democrats, while another thought I was making fun of Democrats.
Which was it? The short answer is neither, and the long answer is that the truth generally lies somewhere in the middle.
While journalists have opinions and cast votes in elections just like other citizens, it’s our job – our duty, even – to be fair and objective when reporting the news and ascertaining and conveying the sentiments shared by the people we cover.
That’s what I did in this case, too, playing it as straight as I possibly could. Among the nine voters who revealed to me whether they were Democrats or Republicans, seven were in the Democratic camp. I still included the voice of a Republican, as Mr. Newman pointed out, in order to give the story a semblance of balance.
It’s also worth noting that if the incumbent in the White House were a Democrat, we likely would have run a story about the Republican primary and sought the opinions of conservatives in the area.
With all of that said, it’s interesting to me that two people could read the same story and come away with completely different ideas about how it was framed and why. And I think it might speak to Americans’ growing distrust of the news media, which makes me worried about not only the state of my profession but also the fate of our democracy.
Not long after I arrived at the Timbergrove Manor polling location and started talking to voters in the parking lot, I was approached by two poll workers who told me I was too close to the ballot boxes. The law is that campaigners, loiterers and reporters must be at least 100 feet away from the place where people vote. In this case, the signs put up to mark that boundary were closer to 100 yards away from the building where voters were casting their ballots.
Later, when I stood behind those signs and aimed my camera at the building in an attempt to get a photo of voters to go along with my story, I saw the poll workers pointing at me. Then a couple voters walked out of a side door, with one of them telling me they were encouraged to do so by the poll workers so they could avoid me.
Another voter confronted me and asked why I was taking photos, suggesting I was doing something wrong or was some sort of spy.
Now, let me be clear about something. It’s perfectly within the bounds of a journalist to photograph people in public places, and I was wearing a press badge that identified myself. Still, if someone says they don’t want their photo published or don’t want their name or quotes in the paper, we honor those requests.
I’m fairly new at covering elections – my first was my second day at The Leader in November 2018 – but this latest experience made me wonder how any journalist is supposed to fairly and adequately cover an election in a time when the president refers to media members as “enemies of the people.”
I can assure you we are not. In fact, our role as public watchdogs is especially important during elections, which are the foundation of our republic. If elections aren’t being held fairly, honestly and transparently – and there have been legitimate questions about that in recent years – then the fabric of our country would unravel.
So, please, don’t assume all journalists have agendas and try to give us the benefit of the doubt. We’re not perfect and make mistakes from time to time, and sometimes, no matter how hard we try, our personal biases come through.
This was not one of those cases. I reported the news while staying true to my sources, much like I did in compiling Tuesday’s election results for this week’s newspaper. We’re letting you know which candidates won which elections, and by how much, in all the races that are most important to the community we serve.
And we’ll do it all over again in November.