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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, March 31, 2002

Covering the end of airlines' merger bid

By Anne Harpham

A letter to the editor last week complained that articles and letters in The Advertiser "are always negative toward Aloha Airlines." A few days later, a pilot e-mailed this question to the newsroom: "Why is your newspaper so pro-Hawaiian Airlines and one-sided in your reporting?"

In following our coverage of the end of the merger of Aloha and Hawaiian Airlines, first announced on March 16, I did not have any sense there was a bias in reporting or how the stories were played. But because of the letters, I reviewed our stories since March 17.

The news of the end of the merger was faxed by Hawaiian Airlines to news media late on Saturday, March 16. At the time, Aloha said it would comment "at the appropriate time." Aloha responded the next day and on Monday, our story focused on Aloha's response that the failure of the merger was because of Hawaiian's decision to change the terms of the agreement.

On Tuesday, March 19, The Advertiser's story looked at what this decision meant for the future of both airlines. Stories since then have included both airlines' positions and comments on the issue. Last Sunday, we published a 60-inch questions-and-answers interview with Aloha president and CEO Glenn Zander.

Neither letter writer said where they find the bias, but Advertiser business editor Judi Erickson suspects it may be because the stories refer to Aloha's economic situation, including its debt and older fleet.

That is the kind of context readers need, as painful as it might be for Aloha employees — who worry about their jobs and also have pride in their airline — to see it in print. Now that they are in a competitive environment again, those issues take on added importance.

"We have been very conscious of both airlines' situation and the financial precariousness of both carriers in our coverage," Erickson said. "In addition, Mainland analysts have pointed out both airlines are facing challenges, particularly Aloha."

Last week's letter writer also felt letters to the editor were negative toward Aloha. Editorial page editor Jerry Burris said most letters about the Hawaiian-Aloha merger have been negative toward the merger itself.

We have run about a half-dozen letters on the subject, only one of which I felt could be construed as negative toward Aloha. But it was negative about the merger plans overall and clearly fell into the realm of fair public comment.

While this probably is not the answer either letter writer was seeking, they should know that decisions on stories and letters are not made in a vacuum. There are discussions about fairness and depth in coverage. But that also means that we often have to report news our readers find painful or difficult.

Senior editor Anne Harpham is The Honolulu Advertiser's reader representative. Reach her at aharpham@honoluluadvertiser.com or 525-8033.