Daily Democrat’s Editor Responds to Vanguard Criticism of Reprinting Press Releases

newspaperOn Wednesday the Vanguard ran the story, “Media Bias in Local Court Coverage” which described how the District Attorney’s Office effectively gets to write their own stories.  To illustrate the point, we ran the DA’s Press Release side-by-side with the Woodland Daily Democrat’s article covering the same story.

The article went on to point out several inaccuracies or omissions that the Daily Democrat reprinted without fact-checking.  From our standpoint this is a problem as the public receives a very slanted view of what actually transpired and there is no effective media check against the DA’s PR campaign.

So this week, the Daily Democrat editor Jim Smith responded to that criticism, acknowledged it was a problem, and handled it more gracefully than was warranted.  The bottom line is that he acknowledges it is a problem, it tears him up inside, but given the state of the industry and his lack of staff, there is little he can do.

I still think if he wants to run those stories, there could be better disclaimers, but that is a smaller point.

Mr. Smith writes, “Years and years ago, The Democrat — like many other newspapers — had a policy of not publishing a “press release” from any public agency until it had been “fact checked.” Preferably, the release was taken and rewritten with appropriate attribution provided, as well as reviewed for background information with a trip to the agency, or office, in question if necessary.”

He continues, “No longer. Today, with cutbacks at newspapers (and The Democrat is no exception) it’s difficult to find the time to run down any release. Believe me, it sits badly in my throat whenever I have to “rewrite” a press release from anyone without taking the time to make the necessary phone calls or do the legwork.”

He argues that bloggers, such as myself have it relatively easy.  “Dave Greenwald, who writes The People’s Vanguard of Davis blog site (and does a very good job, by the way) can devote as much, or as little, attention to whatever he wants because he doesn’t have the demands imposed on a daily newspaper. And Greenwald is better than most. For some Woodland blogs, it could be days between articles. Mainstream newspapers have to be updated constantly.”

Furthermore as he points out, the Vanguard does not cover things like weddings , obituaries, we don’t run the little puff stories that get submitted to the newspaper, you do not log onto the Vanguard to read about whether your kick got some hits in little league.

In short as Mr. Smith correctly points out, “Greenwald can be very picky in what he covers. He’s not going to publish a listing of the kids who are on the honor roll at Davis High School, or report about the library rose club (assuming there is such a group in Davis). He’ll leave those “mundane” stories for others. I get dozens of these “refrigerator journalism” stories daily. Greenwald doesn’t publish wedding announcements, or obituaries, and his readers don’t care. If The Democrat, or Davis Enterprise, left out these stories there would be holly hell. If Greenwald did publish such news he’d have less time to devote for his in-depth essays.”

That is very accurate.  The Vanguard has to focus on a narrow niche even as we cover things from the city council, to the school district, to the county, to the judicial system, and occasionally throw in some state news for good measure, we are still focusing on a narrow slice of that.  I call it a “Vanguard article,” but it is basically an editorial decision.  Never every thing covered in the paper is a “Vanguard article.”  I can’t explain to you what a “Vanguard article” is, but I know it when I see it.

He continues, “So, we who work for mainstream media newspapers (which again have fewer writers than at any time in their history) have to decide if a press release warrants checking out, or running as it basically unchanged.”

Furthermore, “When press releases are provided to newspapers — regardless of who writes them — they will be prepared from a biased perspective. It’s unavoidable. Yolo County’s public information officer, Beth Gabor, reports on events in Yolo County government. She does a good job. But she doesn’t report everything that goes on. And she’s not going to write something that’s critical or negative, because that’s not her job.”

“As editor of The Democrat, it’s my job to decide what releases from Gabor are published with minor touch ups, or are handed over to a writer for more thorough research. Ditto the District Attorney’s Office. Ditto the Woodland Unified School District. Ditto UC Davis, and many others,” Jim Smith writes.  “I don’t always get it right, but with limited staff I have to decide daily just how much time will be spent on a specific topic. Too much might erode our ability at covering something else of greater significance to the community. There are only so many hours in a day, and writers can produce only so much per day. I have to do this and still stay within our year budget.”

“It’s a dance I’ve never felt comfortable doing, but I know must be done for this paper to survive and be profitable,” he said.

It is difficult to criticize a person when they understand the problem, it bothers them, and they feel powerless to do much about it.  I have been blasted by journalists all week, accused of taking cheap shots at reporters who are working hard for very little compensation, accused of taking on struggling newspapers, and they are correct in their criticism.  I do get to have my cake and eat it.

I started the Vanguard specifically to counter what I believed to be unfair coverage by the local newspaper in Davis – I did not and still do not believe that my views and others like me get a fair hearing.  I have a sense of frustration because I believe that some government entities are running all over the rights of private citizens, and I see that the newspapers have played a role in aiding and abetting in this injustice.

I now realize that to some extent that is not their fault.  As time has gone on, what I now see is an “ordinary injustice” in the media industry.  It goes something like this.  The newspapers are overworked and understaffed, they are struggling, some of them dying, and they cannot do the job they would like to do.  So they do their best to get their reporters to cover the key events and rely on wire feeds and press releases to inform the community.

On the other hand, it is hard to blame the DA’s Office, the County, or UC Davis for sending out press releases that promote their activities and show them in the best possible light.  As Mr. Smith points out, Beth Gabor’s job is not to be fair and balanced, it is not to release critical information about the county.  Rather it is to send out information about things that the county wants to illustrate.  Sometimes it is an achievement, often it is a program or offering.

The Vanguard has a niche that differs from the traditional newspaper.  No one is coming on this site to read about how the Davis Blue Devils did in their baseball game.  They are coming on this site to read about local government and what is happening in their community.  Many do this because they do not have time to go to meetings on their own.  Some do it because they are dissatisfied with the point of view or coverage on these topics by other media outlets.

If the local newspaper cannot expend the resources to cover a court case, then our role is to make sure the public has at least one source of information that can go beyond the official government statement.  That is our job.  No longer will we criticize the local newspapers in terms of their ability to cover such events.  Instead we will focus our efforts on covering what is undercovered and correcting the record as seems fit.

Bloggers and traditional media have a love-hate relationship.  Bloggers are at times jealous of the status and legitimacy that the official media journalist gets.  Traditional media criticizes bloggers for lack of rules, lack of objectivity, at the same time perhaps envious of those same lack of constraints.  And there is a good deal of justification to that.  I do not have a script for how to do this job, I am not a trained journalist, and there is clearly a tension between journalists and bloggers.

But perhaps instead of fighting those wars, we should all work together and try to keep the public as informed as possible simply by doing what each one does best.  I certainly do not mean to disparage the hard work that decent people like Jim Smith have done for many more years than I have.

In short, I respect the job that our local newspapers do, I would not want to have to cover wedding announcements or little league baseball games, or human interest stories.  I may disagree with the editorials in the local newspapers and critique them, but I am done criticizing the local media.  Our job is to keep the government honest and promote open government and transparency.  That is what we will focus on into the future. 

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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  1. allewis

    Thank you both for an honest and respectful account of where local media stands today.

    The arrival of the Vanguard in this town has done much to make city and county government accountable. On the other hand, I did have to be reminded of the difficulties facing local newspapers.

    Al Lewis

  2. davisite2

    Was the “article” identified as a “news release””?
    Mr. Smith should certainly be capable of determining if he, as editor, is comfortable with the piece being presented as his newspaper’s article. After reading Mr. Smith’s heartfelt explanations, he should be very comfortable labeling it as a “news release” in the future.

  3. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “He continues, “So, we who work for mainstream media newspapers (which again have fewer writers than at any time in their history) have to decide if a press release warrants checking out, or running as it basically unchanged.””

    What I am hearing is a lot of excuses for a failure to check facts. If the newspaper is essentially paraphrasing a press release, without checking the facts, then it should just print the press release and attribute it to whoever wrote the press release, period. To do anything else is misreprestation to the public. IMHO, there is never an excuse for not checking the facts, if a reporter is going to write a news story. It has to do with journalistic integrity, which seems to be dwindling at an alarming rate. No longer do I feel I can go to the print media or newscasts and get the news – it has become nothing but a conglomeration of sensationalism, gossip and propoganda dressed up to look like news. I don’t believe most of what I hear and read in the news media – which is shameful. They have lost credibility and I believe is one of the major reasons for their decline.

    I would also point out press releases about weddings and puff pieces don’t need much “fact-checking” – a press release about those from someone else would be fine. But a news story is not the same thing. Again, it is a question of JOURNALISTIC INTEGRITY instead of what has become the excuse of financial expediency. Sorry, but I don’t find the Daily Democrat’s explanation/excuses particularly satisfactory. The news media is the architect of their own downfall.

    Blogs and other sources that break investigative news stories are gaining traction just because the news media has lost focus of its true mission…

  4. Themis

    I am glad Jim Smith is finally admitting that the Daily Democrat just prints press releases without fact checking. This doesn’t explain why his newspaper won’t print letters to the editor that speak out against those same press releases.

  5. Superfluous Man

    I’m glad that Jim Smith officially addressed this issue, but I didn’t find his editorial to be all that satisfying. Smith not once explained why they, if they can’t fact check the release and just run the release verbatim as written by the “Democrat Staff”, don’t admit they are just running the releases provided by the agency. They should acknowledge that the material the reader is absorbing are entirely the words, phrasing, facts and characterizations of the DA’s Office(or other agency) and no one else’s. That only seems fair to me, it should be very clear that they are reprinting the press releases verbatim. Otherwise, it’s reads as though the Democrat is reporting, without bias, what happened in a criminal case. Smith never explained why they don’t or can’t run a byline explaining that the contents of the “article” are basically the DA’s press release verbatim. They have done this by the way, but it’s not the rule and I think it depends on who’s in charge at the time.

    It’s as if Smith thinks writing this editorial washes his hands of any confusion and blame in the future, because he has come out and admitted that they just reprint the press releases verbatim…because the state of mainstream media is such that they can’t do this or that. Not really an excuse to my mind.

    Another point that I made earlier was Smith’s efforts to increase the information exchange between WPD, YCSD, DA’s Office and the Democrat. He’s met with the public information officials from these agencies and given them pointers on how to be effective in their public relations matters. In general, it would appear that the Democrat has made concerted efforts to develop and expand on its relationships with these law enforcement agencies, but have they made similar efforts with regards to the PD Office and their public relations? Have they attempted to sit down with members of the PD’s Office, so we can get their side of the story(not just the DA’s) in some of these cases or even better educate us on what is going on in the criminal justice system in Yolo County? This way the Democrat can get more effortless material to print in their paper too, just like what they currently do with government releases. Win win?

    Would spending a little more time doing some in dpeth reporting make the Democrat less profitable?

  6. Fight Against Injustice

    I agree with Superfluous Man that the Daily Democrat and other local media should at least put something in their articles stating that this press release was written by the DA’s office (or whoever wrote it)instead of just saying Daily Democrat Staff. This would not take any more time and would allow the readers to know how this press release might be slanted in one direction or another.

    I can understand the financial and personnel difficulties, but the media does have a responsibility to their readers to at least cite the source of what they print–especially if they cannot investigate it for accuracy.

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