Monday, June 25, 2012

Maligned media, Part 2: The truth will out, but it can take time

Sometimes they shoot the messenger.

It’s an expression related to the idea of killing off the bearer of unwelcome tidings — as if the messenger really is to blame for unwanted or bad news.

To be clear, as I noted in Maligned media, Part 1 of this missive, sometimes the negative perception of the media is justified, such
as when we let our egos take center stage at news events, or when our aggressiveness as journalists become rude and unreasonable. As Steve Buttry pointed out in a comment he posted on Part 1, “We do have to know when to be aggressive as journalists. But I find I get a lot further by being polite and persuasive most times.”

I have found the same true throughout my career, but not only in journalism. Yes, there are times you have to get into someone’s face when ferreting out the truth, but that generally is the exception, not the rule. Most folks appreciate someone who is polite, persuasive, persistent — even insistent — especially when they are willing to take the time to listen, to understand the facts and what they mean.

Integrity is key to credibility

Still, rudeness is not the worst accusation leveled against journalists. We’ve been called jackals and vultures when we descend en masse upon a big news event.

Others accuse the media of sensationalizing news, of having a liberal bias, of playing fast and loose with the facts, even failing to report the facts. In recent years, the American media have taken consistent hits in terms of credibility, as indicated in a 2010 Gallup poll on media credibility.

Credibility should be a sore point for all journalists and is among the reasons the Society of Professional Journalists over the years adopted a code of ethics that serves as a guide for many newsrooms. I also adhere to the group that calls itself the TAO of Journalism, for transparency, accountability and openness to other views.

The bottom line in the area of integrity is truth, accuracy, honesty, fairness and accountability.

As an aside, I would point out that some people believe, falsely, that fairness means allowing them to say whatever they want to say without having the veracity of their claims questioned. That kind of misunderstanding will be a huge burr under the saddle for anyone portraying fiction as fact.

Acting always with integrity is one way we journalists can preserve our credibility. Another is holding ourselves accountable to the readership we serve.

That means adhering to some of the nitty-gritty of journalism — spell names correctly, get ages, addresses and street names right as well, make sure the numbers add up to what you say they do, and that the facts you present are, well, factual.

Throughout my career, I’ve made a point of telling my sources, my readers, the public officials who answer my questions, the local standouts I interview, that if they think I got something wrong, they should call me at once so that I can verify and then correct the error. That opens the door to another step — determining how the error was made so that it can be avoided in the future.

Character maligned

Still, even when we follow all ethical rules, dotting every ethical “i” and crossing every ethical “t,” even then, there is a good chance someone will be willing to malign our integrity.

Journalists devote their careers to truth, accuracy, fairness, keeping the communities they serve informed about what’s happening in their schools, with their local, state and federal governments, about crime on the streets, about justice or injustice in the courts.

Professional integrity speaks volumes in terms of our credibility as individuals. That translates corporately as well — a news organization that espouses and adheres to high ethical values and enforces standards to hold its journalists accountable gains believability in the eyes of its readers, as well as its critics. Or it should.

Among all the bad raps journalists take, whether deserved or not, few are worse than those that malign our integrity.

We aspire to be bearers of light — shining the beacon of truth into dark places, uncovering injustice and corruption, offering our readers what we hope are accurate, truthful, fair and insightful interpretations of what is happening in our communities.

Those who do dislike the news we write, those who cannot accept truth, those whose view of reality is inconsistent with truth and accuracy would prefer to shoot the messenger. Sometimes they try.

Fighting the good fight

During my first seven years as a journalist at the Rawlins Daily Times in Rawlins, Wyo., my reporting of facts put me at odds variously with:
  • Eventually, the city manager chose to accuse my editor of mischaracterizing his administration in editorials. He then accused the newspaper of twisting facts, lying and reporting half-truths. We did no such thing. The facts we cited were well-documented and spoke for themselves. The only half-truths were the constantly changing stream of explanations coming from the city manager about the sudden state of disarray in city finances. New reasons were cited, first on a near-daily basis, then weekly, shifting each time the truth showcased the flaws in the earlier statements.
  • A city manager who fired a headstrong, longtime city treasurer who kept the city’s books the old-fashioned way — in a handwritten ledger. Several months later, a bank refused to deposit a Rawlins police officer’s paycheck due to insufficient funds, which turned out to be nothing more than a procedural error — someone forgot to transfer money from the city’s interest-bearing account to its no-interest payroll checking account. That episode, however, ushered in the discovery that the city administration mistakenly had spent tens of thousands of dollars from the police pension fund. That was reflected in the handwritten ledgers.
  • On an earlier occasion, this same city manager once locked me in his office for nearly two hours as he tried to interrogate me to learn the source I had cited in a story. This was one of the few times in my career that I had used an anonymous source, with my editor’s approval. The story arose from a spat between the city’s part-paid, part-volunteer fire department and the local hospital, leading to a vote by the volunteers to stop responding to ambulance calls outside the city limits in protest of some hospital policies. No one believed they actually would not respond when called. It was a protest vote at best, but it was embarrassing to the city, and the city manager was livid that I had found out about it, let alone written about it. He wanted to fire the person who had told me. When I continued to refuse and got up to leave, he began impugning my integrity, saying my use of an anonymous source was unethical. I guess he never paused to consider locking me in his office might be construed in the same manner. He never did learn the name of my source, but if I recall correctly, he did try the locked-door routine again later, on the reporter who eventually replaced me on the city beat.
  • I pushed hard, if naïvely, over the course of five years to gain public access to school board-teacher negotiations. When I started, public information about those negotiations amounted to a one-paragraph statement marking the start of talks, and another at the end announcing the ratification of a contract and the contract terms. I say I pushed naïvely because Wyoming’s public meetings law did not apply to the negotiations sessions, since less than a quorum of the board participated. For five years I asked and was told no. Toward the end of that time, however, I stumbled upon a loophole I could exploit via the state’s public records law. Whatever documents the two sides exchanged in negotiations were considered unrestricted public records under the law. I filed a Freedom of Information Act request for copies. Suddenly, both sides wanted the press in to cover the actual negotiations sessions, because the sessions would provide greater context than the documents alone would. Still, in the final weeks before that nut cracked open, people I knew began relaying to me that I had angered the union and that my life might be in jeopardy if I did not back away. I never took the threats seriously, although words began to spread that I was out to get the union. I started getting phone calls from angry residents because, well, in addition to the teachers union, Rawlins was a railroad hub, and there were a lot of union guys working for Union Pacific.
As an aside, about a year later, I mentioned the threats in passing to the police chief. I think I was proud of myself for standing up for myself that way, but I was surprised when he scolded me for not reporting the threats. As he put it, “What if something had happened to you? We wouldn’t have had a clue who to start looking at because you hadn’t reported it.” He was right, and in retrospect, I should have done so.

The latest assault

Fast forward to today and the work I have been doing at BocaJump, covering the city government in Elgin, Ill.

Over the past 18 months, I have had ample time to become acquainted with the city’s budget process. Some things do not change all that much from a small town to a large one. The numbers are larger, there are more departments and a greater number of separate funds to consider, but basic budgeting principles remain the same. Money comes in from taxes, money goes out. Most of the money goes to personnel costs, the rest to infrastructure, maintenance and paying for such diverse things as equipment, supplies and utilities.

Reporters for other news organizations and I covered the budget deliberations from start to finish. We at varying points covered different aspects of the budget, but the numbers jived with the city’s figures, with what city officials were saying, with the official budget documents the city adopted in January and posted on its website.

But there were naysayers, and understandably so, to a somewhat complicated albeit straightforward budget restructuring plan that would add new taxes and fees, most of which will be offset by a $10 million property tax cut phased in by 2014.

The bottom line is that by 2014, the net increase from new taxes and new fees will be about $4.6 million, and the city’s revenues streams, which formerly relied most heavily on property and sales taxes, will be spread among twice as many taxes and fees as they had been before. It is a move that officials believe will minimize the ebb and flow of revenues that can wreak havoc on city finances.

The critics of this plan have spoken up many times. I’ve written stories about the group and live-blogged its members’ comments during City Council meetings. But they have made some incendiary claims over the past year and thrown out numbers that clearly are wrong but which they claim prove their points. On several occasions, I ran stories that refuted some of their claims. The most recent was last weekend (you can read it here).

'The truth will out'

“The truth will out” is a phrase Shakespeare used in The Merchant of Venice, meaning the truth will be known at some point, and when you are making claims that are not supported by the truth, you end up looking bad.

When you are the messenger who brings that truth, you may become a target.

The first shot came by email early last week as a courtesy from a group member to let me know it was responding to that last story. The second shot also came by email, which was forwarded to me from a friend who is on the group’s email list. This email introduced my story as the “propaganda piece” I had written for the city.

That attack on my integrity stung. But I have been assaulted with this tactic before and am not afraid, nor am I particularly angry.

Sometimes they shoot the messenger because he’s delivering information they do not want to hear.

I have nothing to fear from character assassination.

I believe the truth will out, and when it does, the truth always reflects badly on those who try to twist or contradict it. I don't say this to be cocky or arrogant, but I have nothing to fear from truth. Nothing at all.