Sometimes a story just follows you. On May 30 the Oklahoma City Daily Oklahoman ran a story about ESPN’s broadcast team of Mike Breen, Jeff Van Gundy and Mark Jackson discussing the accusations from Oklahoma Thunder basketball fans of bias in cal
ling the NBA playoff series between Oklahoma City and Dallas.
It was a typical media story covering a common problem — sports fans seeing bias everywhere.
What was so interesting about the story was its source. After all, the Daily Oklahoman faces some of the harshest calls of bias from one of the most ardent groups of fans — Oklahoma State University football fans — of any newspaper in the country.The Oklahoman faces these accusations each season and must overcome obstacles other media organizations never need to surmount. The University of Oklahoma football stadium is named Gaylord Family — Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. The University of Oklahoma also houses The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication. The Gaylord family owns the Oklahoman.
The conflict of interest is apparent.
It’s one the Oklahoman cannot ignore and the conflict of interest is a great equalizer in the argument between fans of arch rival Oklahoma State who say the Oklahoman slights their team on a regular basis. Is it a fair argument?
“I was at the Oklahoman 15 years and 14 years were in sports and I don’t ever remember the Gaylord family coming down from the executive floors and saying we need more coverage of Oklahoma,” said Tulsa World Sports Editor Mike Strain, a former Oklahoman sportswriter.
Do a content analysis on the question and you will most likely find the number of stories and number of inches at the Oklahoman is fairly close between the two schools. After dealing with accusations of bias for years, the content analysis had better be close.
Content analysis doesn’t tell you what fans think though. Fans are a different thing, especially the rabid fans you find when covering college football. Football rules Oklahoma and the fans love their teams.
Harry Hix, who spent years as a publisher, editor and professor at both the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University, is well versed in accusations of bias, as are most who work in a newsroom. Hix is also an Oklahoma State Cowboys fan.
“People are fans and in Oklahoma, they are very passionate fans,” Hix said. “Some would say it’s an unreasonable passion, but they love their sports. And you basically can’t persuade people otherwise, you can’t persuade them that a bias does not exist.”
This brings up the problem for the Oklahoman. The numbers say the Oklahoman is not biased when covering the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University. The readers say otherwise. The Oklahoman is acutely aware of the problem and did not want to discuss this in a public forum.
“We strive to be fair to both OU and OSU in our coverage and are aware that perceptions exist on both sides,” said the Oklahoman’s Joe Hight in an e-mail reply. “Our staff takes the concerns seriously and has discussed the need for balance in our approach to coverage and in the actual coverage. We will continue to do so in the future.”
Hight is the Oklahoman’s Director of Information
Perception of bias
Audiences see bias everywhere. Sometimes it exists and sometimes it doesn’t. Academics have been studying bias for quite a while. A 1954 study by Albert Hastorf and Hadley Cantril examined how fans of two football teams, Dartmouth and Princeton, saw a penalty-plagued football game and reached different conclusions about which team was playing unfairly.
Academics use many different terms for how audiences view media, from hostile media effect to persuasive press influence. They generally say people take their own personal opinions and beliefs and transfer them to the media; sometimes positively, sometimes negatively. Media writers know fans will disagree with what is reported.
“I figure if you only have one fan group that’s very upset and you aren’t hearing from all of them maybe you are doing something wrong,” Strain said.
Every newspaper is perceived to be biased. The Tulsa World deals with the same problems and from many different angles.
“We deal with this all the time,” Strain said. “You get those calls all the time. It’s not just OU and OSU. It’s (Tulsa) Jenks vs. (Tulsa) Union in high school football or Oral Roberts vs. Tulsa, it just doesn’t matter. Whenever you have a rivalry you have fans calling in and saying you aren’t being fair to one side or the other.”
It doesn’t matter what you write or how you write it, fans will call in to complain. One reason, especially in Oklahoma, is ownership. Who owns a newspaper or media outlet affects how people perceive that outlet.
Covering the Cubs
In 1981 Tribune Company bought the Chicago Cubs. Tribune Company also owned the Chicago Tribune, Chicago’s largest circulation newspaper, and WGN, a cable station that showed nearly all of the Cubs’ baseball games at that time. Immediately, those in the media questioned the conflict of interest involved in the ownership as well as the perception that the Cubs would become the recipient of extra media attention.
At that time, the Cubs were no different than the Chicago White Sox in attendance and perception. But the explosion of cable television and WGN, the fact that the White Sox left WGN for a local television station and solid marketing campaigns turned the Cubs, not the White Sox, into a media sensation.
That didn’t mean the Tribune company treated the Cubs differently than it did the White Sox. In fact, the Tribune did not change its coverage of the two teams. Paul Sullivan, the Chicago Cubs’ beat writer, said in a 2007 interview that he would never allow anyone to tell him what to write.
In fact, Sullivan was able to point out numerous instances when
the Chicago Sun-Times, the Tribune’s main rival, had beat reporters much more positive toward the Cubs than he was.
In 2009, the Tribune Company sold the Cubs. Since then, coverage of the team has not become more negative.
So is there a bias?
“Let’s just say that this has been going on for a long time and the people at the Oklahoman are aware of it,” Strain said.
Beat writers and columnists who work sports for the Oklahoman know they will face this perception from fans. They argue that it’s just a perception and has no basis in fact.
At the same time, Hix can come up with a good example of what Oklahoma State Cowboy fans consider to be biased reporting. The 2011 Oklahoma State women’s softball team and the University of Oklahoma’s women’s softball team both qualified for the NCAA Division I World Series, which is played in Oklahoma City. In the regional before the World Series, Oklahoma State had to travel to Knoxville, Tenn. to play national power Tennessee while Oklahoma played its regional in the Oklahoma City area.
Oklahoma State was not expected to win but knocked off Tennessee on the road while Oklahoma won at home. Oklahoma received more coverage in the Oklahoman.
“From OSU’s standpoint, it was a much bigger story because they had to travel and they weren’t supposed to win while Oklahoma was basically playing at home,” Hix said. “OSU fans take that and cry bias, but if you’re working at a newspaper you know that you have other reasons, including cost of travel, expectations and so on for either covering or not covering the event.
“But that’s where many OSU fans see bias.”
Examining this story from a sports editors perspective puts a higher ranked team playing within the paper’s coverage region with another team, ranked lower and not expected to win, travelling to Tennessee to play a national softball power. Of course the sports editor will play the odds and increase the coverage on the team playing close to home. It saves money. But then Oklahoma State won and the Oklahoman took a bias hit.
Another area where bias may be found is in how stories are displayed. Oklahoma often gets top billing in its stories and even though the column inches are the same, Oklahoma gets a better display and that upsets the Oklahoma State fan.
“Some of the perception comes from the display of stories,” Strain said. “Not only how you write them but how you display them.”
The Oklahoman has a reason to place the University of Oklahoma as a higher priority on its display list. The reason is fan base. University of Oklahoma football is clearly the No. 1 read sports item in The Oklahoman. Oklahoma State football is a distant second.
“The Oklahoman has more OU football fans than OSU football fans reading their paper,” Strain said. “It’s not comparable. They just have a larger base of fans that root for Oklahoma.
“OSU and OU have the same number of students roughly, but Oklahoma draws fans who may have never been to the school and just roots for college football teams. And they root for Oklahoma.”
It’s hard to argue that. Oklahoma has a national fan base. That’s what happens when a university has seven national titles to its name, countless conference titles and has dominated the in-state football rivalry, known as Bedlam, to the tune of 81-17-7. Sports writers gravitate toward teams with the best records and history, right or wrong. That team is Oklahoma.
“Somewhere down the line you have to take into account where your readership is and what they want or they won’t be readers anymore,” Hix said.
So why doesn’t the Tulsa World receive the same complaints? The gap between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State fans is much closer in Tulsa, but the University of Oklahoma still has a clear-cut advantage in the number of fans who read the paper for news on Oklahoma’s football team.
“I think in Tulsa, the readership numbers are much more even,” Strain said. “Every survey that I’ve seen, OU football is our number-one readership number and it’s not close. OSU football is number two but there’s a large gap. OU is the clear number one here. But the gap between Oklahoma and Oklahoma State is much closer. So our coverage, in terms of display, is much more balanced.”
Jeni Carlson and the rant
On Sept. 22, 2007, Oklahoman Jeni Carlson wrote a column about Oklahoma State quarterback Bobby Reid who had been benched by Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy. After winning their game that day against Texas Tech, Gundy used his press conference to berate Carlson for her column instead of talking about the game. The moment was captured on video and later became known among Oklahomans as “the rant.”
While many in media were quick to defend Carlson’s right to write the article (while stepping away from the article’s content) many Oklahoma State fans rallied to Gundy’s defense and hailed him for standing up for his team against an unfair attack from a biased newspaper.
“I’ve never seen anything like that situation,” Strain said. “I’ve seen interesting situations but never like that.
“I think Mike Gundy exploded that. For fans, almost everywhere now, the media are a four-letter word almost.”
This phenomenon is noticeable in politics as well as sports. Pew research shows that audiences consider media as less reliable than they did just 10 years ago. Bias is perceived to be everywhere, from the so-called liberal bias to the attack radio on the right. One byproduct of the attacks on media is threats of violence.
“There were attacks on Jeni,” Strain said. “Whether you like her opinion or not, it comes down to this — it’s sports. Could it have been written better, absolutely.
That flat out does not happen. They don’t do that. They’re just covering their teams and she wrote an opinion and then it became a national sensation.”
When media members become the story it is almost always because someone perceived a bias. In this instance, Gundy tapped into the long-standing anger of the Oklahoma State football fan and unleashed a torrent of hatred toward Carlson.
It’s commonplace in politics. Sports are just a mirror for examining the phenomenon. It’s something that can’t be fixed.
“If you haven’t been there and experienced what’s going on in the newsroom, if you haven’t seen for yourself that the bias really isn’t there, you’ll have a hard time persuading people otherwise,” Hix said.
People aren’t easily pursuaded they’re wrong when it comes to politics. Media play a role in that as well, trying to make sure that both sides of a story are well represented. Therefore, global warming may possibly be a liberal hoax, creationism or intelligent design are relevant areas of study along with evolution and President Barack Obama may need to present his birth certificate again and again to satisfy those who don’t believe he was born in the United States.
Oklahoma State’s football team is supposed to be very good this season. The Cowboys are ranked in the Top Ten in many of the preseason polls. Yes, Oklahoma is ranked in the top five, but the Cowboys are gaining ground.
“Especially now that OSU is going to be a top-ten program, they’ll get more play,” Strain said. “OU might be ranked number one by some this year but Oklahoma State will get more play.”
Will it be enough to satisfy Oklahoma State football fans? We’ll have to wait and see.
Scott Lambert is the managing editor of the Gateway Journalism Review. He worked as a sports journalist and editor for 13 years.