Thursday, June 14, 2007

Advocacy Journalism Resumes

Last night's post about the new vacancy in Humboldt County's election department was quite likely a scoop for WDNC. I'm not expecting to be back on the advocacy journalism beat with the intensity and posting frequency of the past, at least not for a little while longer. But following the news I broke last night, it calls for an update based on a few things I did today.

Around midday I called Registrar of Voters Carolyn Crnich to inquire about the Election Manager job description and qualifications. She was rather non-plussed to be hearing from me about this and mentioned that she knew I had "gone to the media" with the news already. I didn't ask for clarification but I thought of three things she might have been referring to.

First, after publishing last night's post to WDNC, I also circulated it to various election integrity e-mail lists. This is the advocacy of it all. I'm publishing news of a job opening and saying I want to help find some possible candidates. I also put the announcement on Democratic Underground and Daily Kos. This seemed the least likely of the three things Carolyn might have meant.

Another step I took last night was to forward the news to Peter B. Collins, with the suggestion that he interview Carolyn on his radio show to get the news of the job opening to some potential candidates. I did not hear back from Peter B. and so I do not know either way whether he or his producer had contacted Carolyn.

Now, before I mention the third possibility, it is worth noting that Carolyn spoke about the people who already work for Humboldt County and have responsibility for filling job openings. She did not particularly welcome my interjection into the process, though surely it won't surprise her that I, and no doubt the Voter Confidence Committee, will be closely monitoring the hiring process and hoping to see an agreeable candidate win the position. Carolyn was intentionally vague and not helpful when I asked how to find the job description and qualifications. That's ok. A very basic search led me to this page displaying all County job openings, and this .pdf describing the now vacant Election Manager position. The date on that description is December 2002 so I imagine it will soon be updated.

To explain the third possibility I imagined about Carolyn's "gone to the media" reference, I have to mention stopping at the Eureka Reporter this morning. Since submitting my most recent opinion column to them, which they published with the most fabulous of names, No Wonder We're Ready For Revolution," I have been wanting to share two suggestions with Managing Editor Glenn Franco Simmons. I've met with him a few times prior, and while conveying my recommendations to him in a series of "off the record" e-mails, we had both been hoping to meet once again to talk in more detail. Unfortunately, Glenn has missed a lot of work lately and I have yet to catch up with him.

For no real reason, I chose to drop in unannounced at the paper today. Glenn was once again unavailable but I was fortunate to get a few minutes with Assistant Managing Editor Diane Batley. She received my first idea better than I could have possibly imagined. I told her that I understand newspapers don't have the manpower to fact check every letter to the editor, yet it is clearly in the interest of the paper to keep "false facts" out of print as much as possible. For example, the bogus claim that the American military "surge" (escalation) has reduced the death rate in Iraq was one of the reasons I wrote that recent column linked above. I proposed (and have been for saying for a while) that newspapers ought to require letter writers to document and source their claims. Diane opened today's paper and showed me that the instructions for submitting letters now include requiring this evidence. She said it was appearing this way for no more than a month. I had already gotten my way once before opening my mouth today. I think that's pretty effective advocacy, though I admit it is possible others have been pushing the same idea.

The second idea I gave to Diane built on the first. Clearly, a newspaper's reputation and credibility must be protected through proactive measures. A "false fact" appearing in a letter to the editor still leaves the newspaper in the position where any reader might later cite this misinformation and attribute it to the paper thereby damaging its credibility and reputation. In other words, it is no more acceptable to have a factual error appear in a letter than it is in an article written by a staff reporter. In each case, a correction notice is warranted. In the example above, my response was not a sufficient proactive protection of the newspaper's credibility after publishing a letter writer's inaccuracy. This so-called "self-correcting mechanism" does the further harm of leaving readers to determine which "fact" to believe. This is not a difference of opinion and the paper has no need to adjudicate if it were. But this is a question of fact/fiction and is exactly how we wind up with what I have so often called the rift in the perception of reality.

I will not venture to guess how persuaded was Diane, but we can now watch to see if the Reporter institutes a policy of running corrections for factual errors in letters to the editor. If it happens, you will know it is because somebody's been doing some advocacy work. Having delivered my two brief points in no more than ten minutes, I stood up to leave. Then I remembered to ask, had she heard about Lindsey McWilliams leaving the elections department? That's when I figured I probably had the scoop last night. Friday's Reporter has this feel-good piece about Lindsey, including many quotes from Carolyn that were likely obtained between the time I had "gone to the media" and called her about the job description.

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