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In an era of horse-race election coverage, another option

Two days before the recent mid-term elections, a small Colorado daily ran an election story notable for what it was not: It was not horse-race coverage of the election, focusing on who was winning or losing. It was not a story that simply repeated a candidate’s attacks on an opponent or pie-in-the-sky promises to voters.

The story, which ran in the Durango Herald, pointed out that two women judges up for retention received lower grades than their male counterparts.

“An analysis of the 142 reviews issued in August – 93 male judges and 49 female – showed that attorneys consistently graded female judges lower than male judges and more harshly than the public did…”

The story went on to provide an explanation: Those lower grades were almost certainly the results of unconscious bias, rather than lesser performances.

The article wasn’t anything fancy, and it didn't involve months of investigation—but it’s a good example of the kinds of approaches journalism can take at its best, providing real information that can help readers make better, more-informed decisions.

The story explains that Colorado is one of several states in which judges are appointed. To allow citizens some voice in the process, voters weigh in by voting for or against retaining judges. And, because judges aren’t allowed to campaign, nonpartisan commissions provide brief reports to voters about the judges’ performances.

It’s those brief reports that are problematic. When the commission released the reports in August, the Herald’s reporter Ann Butler wrote a standard story reporting those findings.

But she thought it was odd that Durango’s two area judges up for retention votes, both of whom happened to be women, had significantly lower ratings than male judges. When I called Butler to ask how she came to write the second story, she said she remembered wondering to herself, “Isn’t it interesting that the women are graded so low?” (“Low” here is in relation to the grades of other judges; both women received strong recommendations for retention.)

And Butler had watched the judges at work. “I’ve been in the courtroom of these judges—and they were all quite competent.”

Dawn Farrington, a division director of employment and training programs for a local nonprofit, also knew both judges and had worked closely with one of them years ago. When she saw Butler’s first story, Farrington was surprised by the judges’ low rankings, so she emailed Butler to ask her to delve deeper. “It just struck me as odd that either one of them would be rated below average,” Farrington said.

But when Butler tried to interview the two judges, La Plata County Court Judge Martha Minot and 6th Judicial Court Judge Suzanne Carlson, she learned that they couldn’t legally talk with her about the issue. That’s because in Colorado, judges are not allowed to campaign for themselves.

Butler found the names of two women judges in Denver who were not up for re-election. One wasn’t willing to go on the record because she was being considered for another position. The other judge had retired, but told Butler she didn’t want her legacy to be about whining.

And that’s what Butler kept encountering: Women declined to go on the record with their experiences of bias because they didn’t want to be seen as whiners. Off the record, women attorneys and judges told Butler that they were treated differently in the court room than their male counterparts. While men were addressed as “sir,” or by their last names, women were often addressed by their first names. Women were criticized for wearing pants to work—never mind that that was exactly what male judges wore.

Butler was able to talk with the executive director of the commission, and eventually, she also used Google to find Project Implicit, a project about unconscious bias that started at Harvard, and talk with one of the project’s researchers about the role of unconscious bias in similar situations. And her editor, Shane Benjamin, analyzed the data about the rankings of women judges compared to those of their male counterparts.

By listening to her gut feelings, treating information skeptically, and showing some persistence when she encountered roadblocks, Butler wrote an informative story. And the news organization was able to move beyond acting as a megaphone for political name-calling and horse-race coverage.

–Jennie Dear

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