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posted: 11/14/2013 5:00 AM

News judgment, not bias, rules sports coverage

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I've written a lot over the years in response to claims that the Daily Herald's political biases color our news coverage, but there's another claim of favoritism that doesn't get as much attention -- that for a particular Sports team.

Few parts of the Daily Herald feed and are fed by the passions of our readers more than the Sports section. The relationship between the words fan and fanatic is not accidental, after all. As a result, fans of a particular team will frequently cry out that we parcel out coverage based on teams "we" like most. A recent case in point came from a reader who believes that our "Northwestern bias has been obvious" and showed itself when our print editions carried a large picture of NU's heartbreaking loss to Nebraska on the last play of their Nov. 2 game but had no coverage of the University of Illinois' equally heartbreaking overtime loss on the same day to Penn State.

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Actually, that discrepancy had a more embarrassing origin. It was an accidental omission arising from miscommunication among a group of editors handling a variety of stories on the crush of deadline. Our checks and balances almost always prevent such an oversight, but this time, they didn't. (In our print editions, that is; our online roundup of Big Ten games included the Illini loss.)

Sports Editor Tom Quinlan, acknowledging the embarrassment of the mistake, also had an explanation that helps better understand our focus on this particular day on the Northwestern game. "The reason we published a large photo of the Northwestern loss ...," he wrote in a note to the Illinois fan, "was because that last-second pass was caught by one of our former All-Area Football Team captains, a freshman from Montini now playing for Nebraska. We care about the suburbs and our high school sports stars, and this was an opportunity to do so again ..."

It's also worth noting, as Quinlan pointed out, that the unlikely ending to the NU game became oft-repeated national news. Still, our mistake provided what statisticians would call "confirmation bias" -- a coincidental occurrence that appears to confirm beliefs already held -- to those convinced we have a preference for one team over another. Following Quinlan's response, the Illinois fan better understood our position and was quite understanding. But whether they be fans of the Cubs, the Sox, the Fire, the Hawks, or the Bulls, of Notre Dame or Northwestern or Illinois or Northern Illinois, or even any one of the teams at the scores of high schools in our coverage area, readers often will infer from a particular day's -- or even season's -- coverage that our own editors are letting their personal passions get in the way of their news judgment.

But, as with political news or any other coverage, we strive always for decisions based on reader interest and appeal, not on our own individual interest. Making those judgments can easily be as complicated regarding sports teams as for other news. The process involves assessing the size of audience for a given team, the level of passion within that audience, the relationships to suburban readers and the general degree of success a team is having. Winners, it must be said, touch all those buttons, creating more excitement and collecting more readers as they go.

That description, sadly, doesn't apply to either Northwestern or Illinois at this point in the college football season, but we know the teams still garner a large audience, so we strive to include them appropriately in the mix of our Sports coverage. And those decisions always are made on the basis of what we perceive their news value to be, not some innate personal preference of our editors.

• Jim Slusher, jslusher@dailyherald.com, is an assistant managing editor at the Daily Herald. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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