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The Plain Dealer: Media Bias And Factual Reporting Analysis

The Plain Dealer, founded in 1842, is a major newspaper of the City of Cleveland, Ohio in the United States. With impressive factual and bias ratings by fact checking websites and media watchdogs, The Plain Dealer is a largely reliable source of information. However, there have been instances when this trustworthy newspaper has shown its biases, whether racial or political.  As far as factual reporting is concerned, The Plain Dealer mostly publishes verified news reports and refers to Associated Press for international coverage. Mediabuzz noticed that the news outlet once published fake news, followed by an apology letter by its editor.

We at Mediabuzz consider several factors while assessing the bias and reliability of a news media. Headlines, political endorsements, trustworthy sources, allegations, controversies, instances of publishing fake news are some of the parameters taken into account while evaluating how fair or impartial a particular newspaper or website is.

The Plain Dealer Media Bias Summary

Media Bias Result: Left

Since 2008, The Plain Dealer has backed a Democrat Presidential candidate. Though its news reports are presented with minimal political bias or say slight left inclination, The Plain Dealer hardly uses emotionally-laden words in its news articles. However, opinion pieces do give a glimpse of its pro-democrat stance. Mediabuzz also found it to be racially biased in a few instances.

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The Plain Dealer Factual Reporting Summary

Factual Reporting Result: Highly Reliable

The Plain Dealer scores high on factual reporting scale. Mediabuzz found only one instance when the newspaper failed to verify the information and went on to publish fake news. However, the vice-president of the company was quick to apologise for the mistake. Other than that, The Plain Dealer has a clean fact-check record.

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A. The Plain Dealer Media Bias Analysis


The Plain Dealer reports on a wide range of subjects like sports, politics, local news, business, entertainment, jobs, autos and real estate among others. Its op-ed page usually carries a mix of both columns by contributors and letters to the editors. The columns often reek of a left-center bias. The Plain Dealer mostly makes sure to keep an impartial tone. However, there have been few instances when it faced backlash due to its racial biases.

1. Analysis Of The Plain Dealer’s Headlines

The Plain Dealer’s headlines stay true to the facts. Mediabuzz couldn’t find a single instance of  a misleading headline. Though there is an example when it was alleged of insensitivity and racial bias because of the story. The op-ed section of The Plain Dealer gives a glimpse of its left-center bias through its columns.

I. Portman signed up to be a legislator. He was a good one. Thanks to Trump, he ended up in a cult

The opinion piece about Rob Portman, a Republican, was published on January 31, 2021. Written by Brent Larkin, it mentioned how Portman has largely remained unconvinced with former US President Donald Trump. The piece also mentions “Trump’s toxic behavior” and “harmful lies”. Larkin opines, “After Bush died in November 2018, Portman spoke with emotion and sincerity about the country ‘losing a lifelong patriot, a guiding voice and the embodiment of the very best of America.’ None of the words Portman used that day to describe George H.W. Bush would apply to Donald Trump”.

He further goes on to add, “But Portman had a choice between siding with truth and decency, or enabling the growing number of extremists in his own party by silently sanctioning Trump’s toxic behavior and tolerating his harmful lies”.

II. Tamir Rice’s father has history of domestic violence

After 12-year-old boy Tamir Rice, who appeared to be playing with a gun at the park, was shot dead by Cleveland Police as a part of the coverage, The Plain Dealer carried a story on his parents’ criminal backgrounds. Originally posted on November 26, 2014, the headline of the story was ‘Tamir Rice’s father has a history of domestic violence’. Once the story was uploaded, the writer Brandon Blackwell received backlash on Twitter. Netizens slammed the news outlet for smearing the victim’s character and deviating the attention from the police brutality. The Huffington Post too criticised the piece. “Blackwell didn’t immediately respond to HuffPost’s request for comment. Mark Naymik, a reporter at the Northeast Ohio Media Group, offered an explanation that reflects a disappointingly common attitude in situations like this,” it wrote. “@BlackwellTweets Gives a small window into this young boy’s life. A frame of reference, perhaps for why he had toy gun?,” Naymik had tweeted.

After the flak, the outlet made a change in the story. “(Update: A line has been added to this story to give insight into the motivation to investigate the parents’ background)” was added in the piece only to include a single line saying, “People from across the region have been asking whether Rice grew up around violence”. Chris Quinn, vice president of the content, defended the decision to carry a story in a column that stated “One way to stop police from killing any more 12-year-olds might be to understand the forces that lead children to undertake behavior that could put them in the sights of police guns.”

III. Columbus police officer on noise complaint shoots, kills unarmed Black man

However, one can find plenty of reports and stories when The Plain Dealer did its job without any bias. One such example is the story titled, ‘Columbus police officer on noise complaint shoots, kills unarmed Black man’.  Published on December 22, 2020, the story was balanced and gave a comprehensive insight into the crime incident. Even fact-checking website, adfontesmedia.com, gave the story the rating of ‘-0.67’ which means fairly neutral.

2. The Plain Dealer: Endorsement of Political Parties

From its establishment in 1842 till the 1930s, The Plain Dealer acted as a Democratic party organ. “It endorsed every party candidate without question, and its editorials read more like campaign ads than considered opinions,” states the article on cleveland.com titled ‘Plain Dealer presidential endorsements: Every pick we made since 1936’. The article originally posted on October 12, 2012, and updated on January 12, 2019, has a list of Presidents endorsed by The Plain Dealer.

It further states, “In the last two decades, the paper’s choices have become more unpredictable, its decisions presented more often as between the leadership and ability of the candidates rather than their political philosophies”. After endorsing Franklin Roosevelt, a Democrat in the 1936 elections, The Plain Dealer continuously backed Republican Presidential candidates until 1988. It began with Wendell Willkie in 1940 and ended with George H. W. Bush in 1988. Though in 1992, it showed support to Bill Clinton, who was a Democrat. It again shifted to the Republican party by backing George W Bush in 2000 and then endorsing no one in 2004.

However, since 2008, The Plain Dealer has only endorsed Democratic Presidential candidates including Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016.

3. The Plain Dealer: Controversies/Allegations

I. Withdrawal of Debate Video

A debate among the three candidates for the position of the Ohio governor was hosted by the Northeast Ohio Media Group, whose editorial board also serves The Plain Dealer. The event hosted in October 2014 showed incumbent Gov. John Kasich, a Republican, ignoring his main rival, Democrat Ed FitzGerald. He insisted that the reporter repeat the question by FitzGerald as he pretended he couldn’t hear it, though the Democrat candidate was sitting next to him.

Few days after the video was posted on cleveland.com, it was removed. However, the video had circulated by then. In order to ensure the removal of the video, the Northeast Ohio Media Group sent legal letters threatening to sue the sites that had shared it.

After Kasich, who was also endorsed by the group, won the election, ‘an explanation of events written by its reader representative’ was posted. “Shortly after the video was posted, the Kasich campaign contacted him and said it had not been aware a video would be posted online. Quinn eventually decided that his failure to explicitly explain the presence of a video camera was unfair. Further, ‘I thought that if I stated my reasons, the obvious next step would be people going to the candidates and asking them if they had any objection to putting the video back up,’ Quinn is quoted as saying. ‘That would mean my error could put people into an uncomfortable situation’,” the column read.

The explanation left some of the critics discontented.

II. Concealed Weapons Permit Holder List

The Plain Dealer twice published the lists of concealed weapon permit holders. Published in 2005, the list included holders from five counties of Cleveland. The newspaper’s decision was slammed by State Senator Steve Austria who cited it as an abuse of media privilege. Publishing names would threaten the security of permit holders, said the senator. However, Editor Doug Clifton defended the paper’s move. As retaliation to The Plain Dealer’s article, an Ohio gun rights group published its editor’s residential address and phone number.

III. Demoting Its Music Critic

On September 17, 2008, The Plain Dealer’s editor, Susan Goldberg informed the music critic Donald Rosenberg that the newspaper won’t be covering Cleveland Orchestra anymore. Rosenberg was working with the newspaper for the last sixteen years. This was probably because Rosenberg criticised the performance of the orchestra under the conductor Franz Welser-Möst and president and publisher of the paper, Terrance C. Z. Egger was on the orchestra’s board.

Following the incident, Rosenberg dropped several claims against The Plain Dealer and even sued Cleveland’s Musical Arts Association besides the newspaper and some of its staff. He alleged that a conspiracy was hatched against him for his demotion.

IV. $50 million lawsuit against The Plain Dealer

In March 2010, The Plain Dealer did a story on eighty comments done on the articles of its website. All the comments were linked to the account registered to the personal email address of Cuyahoga County Common Pleas Judge Shirley Strickland Saffold. The comments posted as “lawmiss” were done by the judge’s 23-year-old daughter, Sydney Saffold. The comments were anonymous and opinionated “relating to some of the judge’s high-profile cases, including that of accused serial killer Anthony Sowell,” reported The Plain Dealer.

The newspaper used a public records request and was able to determine the exact dates and times of the postings that corresponded to the times. As a consequence, an attorney, who was slammed in the postings, requested the judge to rescue her from a homicide trial. Later, Saffold was removed from the case by Ohio Supreme Court Acting Chief Justice Paul E. Pfeifer. In April 2010, Saffold filed a $50 million lawsuit against The Plain Dealer and its editor Susan Goldberg claiming breach of privacy. However, in December 2010, she reached a settlement with the company and dropped the case.

V. White Bias Allegations

The National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ) gave the Thumbs Down Award to Advance Local/Cleveland Plain Dealer/Cleveland.com during its 2020 Virtual Awards on December 19 for controversial changes and job cuts. According to nabjonline.org, “Earlier this year, Advance Local, the company which owns both the Plain Dealer newspaper and Cleveland.com, saw at least nine journalists of color quit or laid off at the newspaper amid substantial layoffs.”

“Advance Local eventually shut down the newsroom of the Plain Dealer, offering the four reporters who remained at the newspaper jobs at Cleveland.com, a newsroom that is not represented by a union,” it further mentioned.

VI. Layoffs

In December 2012, the Newspaper Guild was informed by The Plain Dealer that after the expiry of the no-layoff provision in January 2013, it plans to remove around one-third of the newspaper’s workforce. Later, the Guild endorsed the newspaper’s proposal with some conditions.  After the agreement between the two, approx two dozen employees voluntarily exit.

Despite being said that May layoffs were “on hold” till summer, one-third of the staff were removed either via voluntary resignations or layoffs on July 31, 2013. As a result, the Guild accused The Plain Dealer management of misleading the union by removing more employees than what had been agreed upon. Again in March 2019, approx. thirteen staff members were laid off.

The Plain Dealer finally dissolved its news guild in May 2020. “Advance Local will lay off the final four reporters at the unionized Plain Dealer and offer them jobs at the non-union sister publication,” reported poynter.org. “The members will be entitled to their earned benefits, including severance pay, whether they accept those jobs or not. The company started down this road in 2013 with this clear end goal — to get rid of the union,” read the union statement as quoted by the website.

B. The Plain Dealer Factual Reporting Analysis

The Plain Dealer scores well on the fact-checking meter. Besides one instance of publishing fake news, Mediabuzz couldn’t find any instance of misleading headlines or unverified information. The Plain Dealer also makes proper use of its sources. Below, we have jotted down the instances which prove that it is a reliable source of information.

1. Fake Story Published by The Plain Dealer

In April 2016, Cleveland.com published a hoax story from ABC News imposter site abcnews.com.co. The story stated that NBA commissioner Adam Silver has given a 30-day deadline to North Carolina to overturn its anti-LGBT law. In March, the NBA stated that the controversial law may force the league to move the 2017 All-Star Game out of Charlotte.  However, the imposter site with a logo similar to ABC News took it to another level.

“Shortly after the story’s publication, Cleveland.com posted a rewrite — combined with an Associated Press report about the anti-LGBT ordinance,” wrote forbes.com in its 2016 article titled ‘Hoax News Story about The NBA Moving The 2017 Charlotte All-Star Game Fooled The Media’.

Later, Cleveland.com vice-president of content Chris Quinn issued an apology. He also stated that the hoax website was created over the weekend. Well, according to awfulannouncing.com, the imposter site had been doing the rounds for a while and was not created over the weekend. Even Donald Trump’s campaign manager Ann Coulter and Corey Lewandowski were fooled by the site.

Quinn wrote, “At cleveland.com, we saw that story believed it to be real and decided to post the news on our website”. He even accepted that the company failed to perform the basics of fact-checking. “We combined it with an Associated Press story about the North Carolina controversy but left the AP byline on what we published. That made it appear that the Associated Press had been duped by the impostor website. That’s not fair to the Associated Press, a valued partner for cleveland.com,” he further wrote.

2. The Plain Dealer’s Attempts To Increase Reliability

I. Launching PolitiFact Ohio

The Plain Dealer even collaborated with PolitiFact, a fact-checking website operated by the Poynter Institute. PolitiFact Ohio was launched in July 2010. The website was meant to analyse relevant political issues of Ohio and the greater Cleveland area besides conducting fact-checking. The collaboration ended four years after The Plain Dealer developed differences with Tampa Bay Times.

II. Boycotting A Republican Leader

The Plain Dealer made it clear that it won’t be covering any inaccurate or sensational statements made by Republican Josh Mandel. The newspaper was appreciated by Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The Washington Post also did a story on The Plain Dealer’s move.

“Mandel is pretty much a nobody right now, a nobody begging for people to notice his Tweets a year ahead of the Senate primary,” said Chris Quinn in an opinion piece. “Just because he makes outrageous, dangerous statements doesn’t mean it is news,” he further stated.

III. Right To Be Forgotten

Putting moral considerations above financial aspects, The Plain Dealer is one of the few news organisations to amend or remove articles under “right to be forgotten”. For the unversed, the right to be forgotten (RTBF) is the right to have personal details removed from other internet directories. The Plain Dealer provides an email address- “tobeforgotten@cleveland.com,” to which requests can be sent.

C. The Plain Dealer Bias Reliability Ratings by Fact-Checking Websites

Some of the prominent fact-checking websites such as  Ad Fontes Media and Media Bias/Fact Check have rated The Plain Dealer on the basis of their biases and credibility. Below we have summarised what these sites have to say about the Cleveland newspaper.

1. Ad Fontes Media

After evaluating some of the articles, Ad Fontes Media rated Cleveland.com, the affiliate website of The Plain Dealer “in the middle category of bias”. As far as credibility is concerned, it is rated as most reliable. Each story was reviewed by a team of at least three analysts, comprising one conservative, one liberal and a moderate.

2. Media Bias/Fact Check

Media Bias/Fact Check rates The Plain Dealer as Left-Center Biased as its editorials moderately favor the left ideologies. “Although there is reasonable balance in the columns, some do offer loaded language and strong left-leaning perspectives,” states Media Bias/ Fact Check. According to the portal, the newspaper has a clean fact check record and it properly uses sources, hence rating them High for factual reporting.

D. Brief Introduction of The Plain Dealer

History

The Plain Dealer is a prominent newspaper published in the broadsheet format in Cleveland, Ohio, United States. Owned by Advance Publications, the first issue of The Plain Dealer was printed in January 1842. Founded by brothers Joseph William Gray and Admiral Nelson Gray, the newspaper was founded after they acquired The Cleveland Advertiser, established in 1831.

Cleveland.com, a website launched by Advance Publications in 1997, is the sister company of The Plain Dealer. Both the platforms share content. The Plain Dealer has no separate newsrooms. Multiple layoffs were conducted to create a separate non-union newsroom, cleveland.com.

Ownership

The Plain Dealer is owned by New York-based media company Advance Publications Inc. The company is owned by the heirs of Samuel Irving Newhouse Sr., who acquired the newspaper on March 1, 1967, from Holden trustees. Back then The Plain Dealer was bought for $54.2 million, the highest price ever paid for a United States newspaper.

E. The Plain Dealer Bias And Factual Reporting Summary

MediaBuzz evaluated several reports, articles, fact-checking websites to arrive at the conclusion that The Plain Deal moderately favours left through its editorials. However, the news stories reported by The Plain Dealer are factually correct with no bias. They do not seek to promote an agenda, though, since 2008, it has openly endorsed Democratic presidential candidates. We also did not find usage of adjectives or emotional words by the Cleveland paper in an attempt to influence its readers. We noticed only one fake story by the newspaper, hence, it won’t be an exaggeration to state that this local daily verifies the information before it reaches the masses.

Reference Links

https://archives.cjr.org/the_audit/advances_forced_march_backward.php?page=all

https://archives.cjr.org/united_states_project/newspaper_guild_files_nlrb_charge_against_plain_dealer.php

https://www.cleveland.com/opinion/2021/01/portman-signed-up-to-be-a-legislator-he-was-a-good-one-thanks-to-trump-he-ended-up-in-a-cult.html

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Plain_Dealer

https://www.cleveland.com/business/2013/07/plain_dealer_executes_newsroom.html

https://www.cleveland.com/business/2012/12/the_plain_dealer_and_its_news.html

https://archives.cjr.org/united_states_project/resetting_the_plain_dealer.php?page=all

https://archives.cjr.org/united_states_project/cleveland_plain_dealer_politifact_factchecking.php?page=all

https://www.huffpost.com/entry/tamir-rice-father_n_6227312

https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2010/04/cuyahoga_county_judge_shirley.html

https://www.washingtonpost.com/media/2021/03/15/josh-mandel-newspaper-coverage/

https://www.cjr.org/the_media_today/right-to-be-forgotten.php

https://www.cleveland.com/metro/2016/04/we_made_a_big_mistake_over_the.html#incart_river_home_pop

https://www.forbes.com/sites/alexreimer/2016/04/11/a-hoax-news-story-about-the-nba-moving-the-2017-charlotte-all-star-game-fooled-the-media/?sh=6878508243ec

https://www.cleveland.com/opinion/2012/10/plain_dealer_presidential_endo.html

https://www.cleveland.com/crime/2020/12/columbus-police-officer-on-noise-complaint-shoots-kills-unarmed-black-man.html

https://www.adfontesmedia.com/cleveland-com-bias-and-reliability/

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