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Fran Matera's "Tropes as Indicators of Bias," a documentary feast, is generously laden with academic sauce, but it doesn't seem to be covering an entree of much substance. Footnotes to scholarly citations, yes. Appropriate definitions of terms, yes. Clear statement of purpose, yes: "This study attempts to determine if persistent negative images...are consistently displayed in the stories that appear in the The Miami Herald, and its Spanish-language version, El Nuevo Herald from 1976 to 1988, with particular emphasis upon 1987."
But what about sentences like these: "The [Cuban American National] Foundation...had no reason to believe El Nuevo Herald would be any more in tune with the Cuban community than [its predecessor] El Herald...." (Did she poll members of the Foundation? I don't know.) And "[Miami's Cubans] have come to dominate the tropical city economically, politically, socially, and culturally, all while feeling woefully misunderstood in the pages of the local newspaper." (Did she poll the entire Cuban community? Doubtful, but who knows?) And this about flamboyant former county manager Sergio Pereira and his notorious "suit case": "Given the pre-existing perception that Miami Cubans hold of the Herald's cultural insensitivity, it is curious that it chose to run this story [a spoof suggesting new outfits for Pereira] at a time which would serve to single out and ridicule an individual who was accused of buying stolen merchandise while eclipsing a full disclosure of the identities of many community movers and shakers who were also involved." (Herald news stories in fact did name the others involved. And is my memory completely shot or was Pereira known as a flashy dresser with a big, boastful mouth?)
Aside from the fact that Matera's research covered a twelve-year period yet cited a scant dozen examples of "bias," the loaded language smelled of something rotten. But I'm just a journalist, afflicted with the full range of conscious and unconscious prejudices Matera decries in her study. So I sent the paper to a couple of experts in the academic field known as "content analysis."
Guido Stempel is a much-honored professor at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. Among the many publications in his 38 years in the field is the graduate text Research in Mass Communication. From 1972 to 1989 he served as editor of the journal Journalism Quarterly. After reading and evaluating Matera's work, Stempel had this to say: "As somebody who edited Journalism Quarterly for seventeen years, I wouldn't have accepted that manuscript. I counted twelve articles in twelve years that had something about them that suggested there was bias. Her criteria are reasonable, and I'd accept the analysis if it had been applied either to all stories or some reasonable-size random sample. But I don't think she picked those twelve articles randomly. Looks to me as though she picked them because they looked as though they were biased. Anything less than 50 or 100 samples wouldn't be acceptable. There's an element of killing the messenger here, the feeling that bias must be there if it doesn't come out the way you'd like it to come out."
Thank you, Dr. Stempel.
Next on the peer-review panel was professor Klaus Krippendorff of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. When pressed, Krippendorff admitted that he is considered to be the nation's leading expert in communication content analysis. His curriculum vitae runs to twelve pages, listing numerous honors and voluminous publications, including the widely used textbook Content Analysis: An Introduction to Its Methodology. His comments after reading Matera's work: "I would say it is a bit mixed. On one hand, it's definitely an academic paper, it has a theoretical framework, a good starting point. But it is epistemologically flawed. It assumes the existence of a reality that the author knows and everyone else doesn't. She always says she knows what the truth is. She's guilty of using her own ellipses to prove her own point. Consistency [of apparent bias] cannot be demonstrated with nine cases. If it's a random sample, maybe 200 would be fine. That's a minimum. She has little evidence; it is not defendable. I can imagine that she may have gotten superficial impressions that there is a bias, and now she's mushroomed it. There's a bias in her paper. This article is not worth sparking a controversy."
Thank you, Dr. Krippendorff.
Fran Matera, Ph.D., who was born and reared in Miami and once worked on the copy desk at the Miami News, defends her work by insisting that over the years, she's collected far more examples of alleged Herald bias than those few presented in her study. "I found so many examples," she says. "I still have boxes of material, so much that a paper about it could be 100 pages long. I tried to use an aspect of it."
The study was begun at the University of Miami's School of Communication, where Matera taught for seven years before taking her current position at Arizona State University. She says that Jaime Suchlicki, from UM's Research Institute for Cuban Studies, got wind of her project and asked if he could publish it under the institute's imprimatur. The resulting monograph (which, in its cover notes, takes pains to inform readers that Matera "is of Italian and Irish descent") was published in November 1990. Eventually it found its way to the Cuban American National Foundation.