Media Bias in Local Court Coverage

Share:

District Attorney’s Office Basically Gets to Write Their Own Stories – Unfiltered and Often Unchecked by Local Media –

courtroom.jpg

As a non-traditional media entity the Vanguard and sites like it, is often criticized for presenting a biased perspective and slanting its news coverage.  The Vanguard believes its role is to cover news stories in greater detail, and present alternative and opposing perspectives from the mainstream newspaper.

However, we also take issue with the notion that news covered by traditional media outlets, such as newspapers necessarily represent fair, unbiased, and accurate assessments of what has actually happened.  While we believe that individual reporters endeavor for journalistic standards of fairness and balance, the decisions made by editors introduce bias in terms of what gets covered and what does not get covered.  But just as important, newspapers given their lack of staffing and resources will often rely on third-party press releases and news accounts from government agencies to be printed, almost verbatim.

 

In our county, there are two entities above all else that essentially produce their own news.  First, the University News Service will issue sometimes two or three “articles” a day that get republished by the local papers, including the Sacramento Bee.  While these tend to paint the university in a good light, they are often not specifically policy related.

Our bigger concern has been for some time the propensity of newspapers to re-print sometimes almost verbatim and at minimum with substantial portions not fact-checked press releases from the Yolo County District Attorney’s office.  This allows the DA an almost unfettered to wage a public relations campaign through the local newspapers. 

Think about this, these are generally one-sided stories, the facts are invariably as reported by the DA’s office, on cases chosen by the DA’s office that they believe makes them look like good and effective crime fighters, there is rarely an effort to get the other side of the story and almost no effort to check facts.

The question I pose to our readers and this community is, how is this decision by traditional newspapers any less biased than our decisions on what to run?

To illustrate our point, let me use our article from yesterday as an example.  We ran a lengthy story on an individual convicted of robbery and shooting another individual in a drug deal that turned violent.  We spent a good amount of time in court, talking to individuals, and researching the issue before we published our story on Tuesday.

The Sacramento Bee, Woodland Daily Democrat, and Davis Enterprise all ran a story based nearly entirely on the District Attorney’s Press Release.

The Davis Enterprise at least attempted to speak to the defense attorney.  And unlike the other papers, they did not merely reprint or re-word the press release.

Here’s is their account:

“A Woodland man was sentenced to more than 38 years in prison last week in connection with a shooting stemming from a marijuana sale, according to the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.

Anthony Vasquez, 22, was convicted by a jury of robbery, discharge of a firearm causing great bodily injury, assault with a firearm causing great bodily injury, attempting to dissuade a witness, with enhancements for crimes benefiting a criminal street gang , District Attorney Jeff Reisig said in a news release.

Prosecutors said Vasquez, a member of the Norteno street gang , arranged to buy marijuana from the victim in his car on May 5, 2008, then shot the other man in the chest before stealing the drug. The victim, who suffered a pierced lung, survived.

Authorities arrested Vasquez six months later. Shortly before his July 2009 preliminary hearing, prosecutors said, jail correctional staff seized a letter from Vasquez in which he reportedly instructed fellow gang members to warn witnesses in the case that they should not attend his trial or say he was at the shooting scene.

Yolo Superior Court Judge Timothy Fall sentenced Vasquez to 38 years, eight months in prison last Friday. Vasquez’s attorney, Deputy Public Defender Charles Butler, could not be reached for comment.”

However, the Woodland Daily Democrat chose to simply re-phrase and at points in time, simply re-print the DA’s press release.  Take a look at this side-by-side comparison.

side-by-side-comparison

The problem is that there are facts that either went unreported, or were actually misreported.

The biggest omission is the fact that the jury actually hung on two of the five counts and four of the five gang enhancements, and yet his gang member is assumed and a centerpiece of the story.

The paper prints verbatim from the press release, “The jury also found that the crimes were committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.”  This is inaccurate.  The DA charged Mr. Vasquez with five gang enhancements, the jury upheld only the gang enhancement on the attempt to the dissuade the witness.  So it would be accurate to say one of the crimes were committed but not to say that they found that “the crimes,” plural, were committed for the benefit of a criminal street gang.  That is inaccurate.

Third, they quote Deputy District Attorney Jonathan Raven. “In the letter Vasquez admitted shooting the victim and he also asked that some of his ‘homies’ let witnesses know that they should not attend his trial or that they should say that he was not there at the time of the shooting.”  What they do not do is apparently attempt to talk to the defense attorney or actually see for themselves what the letter says.  His statement is not completely accurate, but the paper merely allows it to stand as though it were.

The bottom line here is that the Woodland paper essentially re-printed the DA’s account without getting or attempting to get the other side of the story, they repeat misreported facts, and omit other key facts.

And so the public reads the story, and has erroneous beliefs about the case.  It may be that they would agree with the DA’s office had they received the full story.  But they are never allowed to even entertain the thought that any of the information may be inaccurate.

I understand that newspapers are hurting for resources, for money, that reports work long hours and do not receive overtime or other benefits.  But I think if resources are an issue, that perhaps the paper ought to not cover something unless they themselves have checked the facts.

There is another alternative.  They run the byline as published by Daily Democrat.  They could simply acknowledge that they are running the District Attorney’s office Press Release, at least that would acknowledge the source of the story and people could decide for themselves whether to believe or disbelieve a story.

While we can blame this problem on lack of staff and resources, it is not altogether new.  Noam Chomsky in a left-leaning criticism of media coverage, in his book “Manufacturing Consent” noted two decades ago on the heavy reliance of media on official government sources.  That creates a couple of different biases, first the media becomes reliant on government officials for their stories, thus perhaps neglecting other stories that are more difficult to produce and second, the media becomes reluctant to bite the hand that feeds them, by questioning or attacking the credibility of official sources.

From our perspective, it creates a problem because the DA has the ability to get their stories to the press almost unfiltered and without any sort of critical review.  It means that we only hear about convictions.  Thus 90 percent of the stories we receive in the local newspaper are about criminals who are found guilty in trial.  And yet, as we know, in nearly half the cases that actually go to trial, the defense wins.  The Public Defender’s office has not chosen to send out press releases every time they win.  Neither do the conflict attorneys.  Neither do private attorneys.

Occasionally in a high profile case, the local newspapers will send a reporter to court, but for the most part, the news we get is coming almost straight out of the DA’s office and that produces an imbalanced perspective on what is going on in this county and in our justice system.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

Share:

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.

Related posts

13 thoughts on “Media Bias in Local Court Coverage”

  1. Roger Rabbit

    Very sad but true. An easy way to tell a DA press release is to see a quote from DA Reisig. He never has talked to media, he never holds press conference to answer questions, he will not respond to any questions sent to his office, so he just puts out his propaganda, unchecked and uses the media as a way to get free press coverage and he gets to only say good things about himself and his office while blaming others.

    “Absolute power corrupts absolutely”

  2. lrkeene

    Roger Rabbit is incorrect. Jeff Reisig always responds to my phone calls and e-mails, as do members of his staff. I find his office to be very accessible.

    Lauren Keene

  3. E Roberts Musser

    DMG: “There is another alternative. They run the byline as published by Daily Democrat. They could simply acknowledge that they are running the District Attorney’s office Press Release, at least that would acknowledge the source of the story and people could decide for themselves whether to believe or disbelieve a story.”

    This is a very reasonable and reasoned suggestion.

  4. Ryan Kelly

    Hey, he shot the guy in the chest, clearly trying to kill him, …over marijuana.

    I would say that without the DA’s press release, we would never had known that the guy was convicted.

  5. Fight Against Injustice

    Thank you for taking the time to educate us about this phenomenon. The media used to always be one of the great checks and balances of what was going on in politics and government. I remember reading stories about journalist and newspapers that took this role with pride. That was one of the great things about this country. The media has helped to keep transparency in our government. The people trust that the media will keep there eyes open and alert us if needed.

    It is very sad that money and or political liaisons have started to deteriorate this process. The Yolo DA, Jeff Reisig is both a politician and part of the governing process and should not be granted the right to put something in a newspaper carte blanche without both sides of the story being told. The integrity of the news being reported should matter to the editors and owners of local media.

    I hope journalists and editors will step up to this challenge and remain to be one of the checks and balances the public needs. The public reads these papers expecting that the news they report is accurate. I wonder if these same newspapers would so easily put in an article with an opposing position without also asking the DA’s office their side of the story? I would hope not. Accurate reporting means checking on a story before putting it in print.

  6. mercy for all

    The problem is that most criminal defense attorneys don’t want to comment. The District Attorneys office, as is their right, issues press releases. I’ve suggested to Tracy Olson, Public Defender, that we issue our own press releases through her office. Its a work in progress. You should know that there is a meeting once a month held by a committee of the superior court judges, the honorable Janet Gard is this years chair, to address media concerns from profiled cases and work towards fairness in its reporting.

  7. Superfluous Man

    David wrote: “There is another alternative. They run the byline as published by Daily Democrat. They could simply acknowledge that they are running the District Attorney’s office Press Release, at least that would acknowledge the source of the story and people could decide for themselves whether to believe or disbelieve a story.”

    My sentiments exactly. The question then becomes why don’t they do this, instead of mudding the waters, as to who is saying what? Is it the Democrat Staff’s wording or are these articles almost entirely written and phrased by the DA’s public relations personnel? Isn’t this an important distinction to make?

    I have no problem with the Democrat running these press releases, however they should indicate that they are doing this…reprinting them essentially verbatim. What’s to lose by acknowledging the fact that they are simply reprinting what the DA’s Office released to the public, they don’t look so great, as journalists? They are just cutting and pasting from the press releases and running these “articles” as if to suggest that the “Democrat Staff” wrote them. In my opinion, that just isn’t acceptable.

    David: Recently I was told that the Democrat did something similar to what you’ve put forth, regarding DA press releases, but this doesn’t seem to be the norm. I think it depends on who is in the newsroom.

  8. Jeff Shaw

    Hi David- good story. As a media person myself, I’ve found this to be fairly common. Most non-local news you see on local tv affiliates is quite often video press releases from corporations, government offices, and the like. Often it is fairly slick and hard to tell the bias. But it is cheap to produce. Just take the video, re-edit, and read the script provided.

    The news business is failing, miserably. But the good news is, it was never profitable in the first place. As soon as we realize it is in the public interest to fund news production & journalism, and not leave the entire process to market forces, the sooner we’ll again find independent ways to fund it.

    In other news, I just saw the Davis Wiki (Wikispot) was awarded the 350,000 Knight News Challenge Grant for development of local wikis.

  9. Superfluous Man

    mercy for all,

    Why don’t criminal defense attorneys like to comment? Is this more often the case with public defenders, or is this the case with private defense counsel as well?

    Does Ms. Olson think issuing press releases is unnecessary or inappropriate for the office of the public defender to issue such releases? Is there some hesitation that a PD’s Office issuing press releases could result in a public relations war of sorts or damage the rapport she(or her office) has with the county and its leaders?

    I can understand her apprehension, but has the Democrat or its editor contacted Ms. Olson in an attempt to develop a working relationship of some sort or open up the lines of communication, much like the paper has done with various law enforcement agencies?

    The Democrat’s editor has made efforts to expand on and improve its rapport with the DA’s Office, WPD and Yolo Sheriff, but not the PD? The Democrat’s editor has actually met with the public relations officers of said agencies, as to better improve their existing relationships and increase the efficiency and quality of their press releases. Has the editor ever requested a sit down with the PD’s Office, to offer up his advice on public relations and develop a rapport, which both the Democrat and public would benefit.

    What actually takes place at these monthly meetings? Are any of the points made in this article discussed?

  10. Rich Rifkin

    [i]”The news business is failing, miserably. But the good news is, it was [u]never profitable[/u] in the first place.”[/i]

    What?!!! What?!!! What?!!!

    It’s fine to have an opinion, but facts are facts. Profits are profits. Twenty-five years ago Times-Mirror and The Washington Post Co. were two of the most profitable corporations traded on the NYSE.

    You ought to read David Halberstam’s book, “The Powers That Be.” You will understand not only were you wrong about profits, but just how very profitable classified ads were for newspapers until the Internet.

    This quote is from a Times-Mirror history: [quote]To celebrate the advent of its second 100 years in business, Times Mirror adopted a new logo in 1984–a stylized version of the eagle that had appeared on the front of the Los Angeles Times and its other publications. In that year, Times Mirror’s profit of $420.8 million was an increase of 13 percent from a year earlier.[/quote] If you use a P:E ratio of 25 (which would be modest for a company whose profits were growing as fast as the Times-Mirror profits were growing, then a $420.8 million annual profit margin (on $2.8 billion in gross revenues) means that the company was worth roughly $10.52 billion. Those revenues were all from print publications (including magazines). Times Mirro also owned a few TV stations and some cable distributors, then, but those assets were held in a subsidiary corporation in 1984.

    And Times Mirror was not alone in being profitable at that time. All of the big newspaper and news magazine companies (Dow Jones, Time-Life, Gannett, Hearst, McClatchy, Washington Post, NY Times, Knight-Ridder, Cox, Murdoch, etc.) were making a ton of money on their newspapers. The Golden Age of newspaper profits (for the huge corporations) started in the post-WW2 period and continued for the next 40 years, save times when the economy was in recession and ad rates fell. (Prior to WW2, newspapers were generally less profitable, due to greater competition, less classified advertising, higher paper and other production costs, and less efficient economies of scale.)

  11. E Roberts Musser

    JS: “The news business is failing, miserably. But the good news is, it was never profitable in the first place. As soon as we realize it is in the public interest to fund news production & journalism, and not leave the entire process to market forces, the sooner we’ll again find independent ways to fund it.”

    This suggestion makes no sense – have our gov’t fund the press w taxpayer dollars? How are we going to get transparency that way? The gov’t would have a field day putting out propaganda to cover its scandals…

  12. Jeff Shaw

    Rich, E Roberts Musser, let me reply:

    1. Sorry I should have been more clear. I didn’t say Newspapers weren’t profitable (And, despite the hype, most still are, just less so), I said the “news business.” What I should have said is “news departments” or “the business of gathering news”- whether they be in television or radio, or newspaper, public affairs news doesn’t bring in the revenue sports or classified or entertainment does. So, in that sense, it was never really the “profit engine” in the first place for media outlets. As information becomes more fragmented (less bundled), how can we fund “the business of gathering news”?

    2. As far as funding, I’d suggest reading John Nicols and Robert McChesney’s new book. There is an interview manuscript with them here where they talk about history and some of their ideas, including government subsidies:
    http://www.democracynow.org/2010/2/4/robert_mcchesney_and_john_nichols_on

    Another model is the BBC. You can read about the funding of BBC here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/BBC#Revenue

    For the record, I’m not arguing for either. What might happen is more of a nonprofit model for newsgathering- perhaps this would mean more accountability, more public representation, and less direct influence by swaying market forces and variability.

    Thanks for the interesting discussion!

    Jeff

Leave a Reply

X Close

Newsletter Sign-Up

X Close

Monthly Subscriber Sign-Up

Enter the maximum amount you want to pay each month
$ USD
Sign up for