This marks the start of a new feature that will appear from time to time in the Davis Vanguard. At the invitation of its editors, I will occasionally offer commentary on how well various media outlets, but particularly the Vanguard itself, adhere to professional journalism standards in their coverage of the issues of the day. My purpose is to improve the quality of this critical community forum and media coverage in general, and to encourage a dialogue with the larger Davis community over these important matters.
I hope you will find my credentials as a journalism reviewer in order. I was graduated from San Francisco State University with a degree in journalism and worked as a reporter for the San Diego Union for 15 years, including a decade as the paper’s Capitol bureau chief. Labels are overstated, but I considered myself an investigative reporter and a student of policy and political issues at the state and local government level. I also contributed to California’s now-defunct journalism review magazine, called “feed/back,” for many years. My 17-year career in state service included conducting regular training sessions for legislative staff in dealing with the media and directly working with reporters.
In offering these commentaries, I am mindful that journalism is a rapidly evolving business and that online forums like the Davis Vanguard provide both opportunities for innovation and challenges. New technology is breaking down the walls between journalists and their audience, creating a sense of conversation and providing instant journalistic accountability. The flip side is that these online forums often find themselves publishing the comments of parties who do not adhere to professional journalism’s standards of fairness and accuracy and who may have hidden agendas.
As I explore this new world of journalism with you, I am certain I will stumble along the way and learn from all of you how this brave new world works and should work. So, here goes.
Beginning on May 7, the Davis Vanguard published a series of three pieces swirling around disputed allegations regarding whether Jesse Ortiz, a candidate for Yolo County Superintendent of Schools, was involved in “sexual misconduct” stemming from a nighttime sexual encounter in a parked car in the parking lot of Woodland Community College in 2005 at a time when Ortiz was a college counselor.
The Vanguard reported on a protracted legal skirmish between Ortiz and the Yuba Community College District over a disciplinary action it took against him for purportedly failing to cooperate with an investigation into the matter. A subsequent May 10 write-up in the Vanguard criticized what it termed “the Ortiz smear campaign” and asserted that parties who are closely tied to rival Yolo County Superintendent of School Sam Neustadt have been pushing the story. Another follow-up piece on May 12 highlighted the findings of a 2010 judge’s ruling in a civil court case involving Ortiz and the college district.
For the record, I have never met with Ortiz or Neustadt and have endorsed no-one in the race for Superintendent of Schools. My assessment is based solely on what I read on the Vanguard without any independent investigation of the facts. Here are some of the problems I saw.
Not once does any of the Vanguard pieces provide its readers with Ortiz’s official and public response to the allegations. A reader can’t tell from what is published whether Ortiz was allowed to provide his response to the allegations “off the record” or if he wasn’t asked at all for his side of the story.
This doesn’t serve the interests of Ortiz. As the target of the allegations, he was entitled to either being quoted directly in the piece affirming or denying the allegations outright as he saw fit, or the Vanguard should have been reporting that he refused to comment on the allegations for the record.
It also didn’t serve the interests of Vanguard readers. I was taught in J-school that the source of information in a news story should be identified whenever possible so as to enable the readers to reach their own judgments about its credibility. Sometimes news sources must be unidentified and protected to get the story, but this should be a rarity, and when it does happen the readers should be told why the source could not be made public.
Yet another hole in the story: The initial Vanguard piece implied that Ortiz had an alibi but never demonstrated that it was true. “The fact that he was chairing as Board President a Woodland School Board Trustee meeting the entire evening that was cited was not even considered,” the Vanguard stated. But the Vanguard never told readers whether that alibi actually held up – for example, whether the minutes showed that Ortiz was indeed running a school board meeting at the alleged 9:40 p.m. time of the incident.
Another problem is that the initial May 10 story gave Vanguard readers no hint that the surfacing of the allegations against Ortiz supposedly involved parties associated with Neustadt. That would have put the story in a whole different context.
This was addressed in the second story two days later, which asserted that “we have heard that public figures who are closely tied to the Neustadt campaign have been among those perpetuating this story.” One party was identified: The article indicated that information related to the Ortiz allegations was emailed to the Vanguard by Dino Gay, whom the Vanguard said “runs a website called the Woodland Record, and that website appears to be a strong supporter of Sam Neustadt.” However, the Vanguard story does not include any direct statements by Gay himself, or by the Neustadt campaign, indicating whether Gay actually had any role in Neustadt’s campaign apparatus.
Neustadt was later quoted in the second Vanguard story as directly denying any involvement or knowledge of the allegations being made against Ortiz. But the reader was left with vague insinuations that Neustadt’s campaign was responsible for a smear job, with no clear evidence that this was actually the case. Again, if the Vanguard had corroboration of Neustadt campaign involvement, it should have presented it and identified the source of its information.
To sum up, the Vanguard simply didn’t have key elements of its story nailed down before it published. Most readers will have no idea what really happened nine years ago and whether Ortiz was actually involved in sexual misconduct. And few will be able to tell whether Neustadt’s campaign apparatus is complicit in any way in the surfacing of the story all these years later. Maybe more reporting would clear things up. But, I would not have published any of the three pieces the Vanguard ran on this subject as they were written. They confused readers more than enlightening them, and, ironically, may have inadvertently perpetuated smears against both candidates.