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