Vanguard’s Questionable Journalistic Ethics

By Matt Rexroad

For democracy to work well we must have a free press, which is why it’s enshrined in the First Amendment. But with that freedom comes responsibility. Too often in our country’s history, yellow journalism has destroyed people’s reputations in order to sell newspapers. As a result, libel laws were enacted to protect malicious slander of innocent parties.

So it’s troubling to see the Davis Vanguard maligning the character of a public safety official in order to make money. The Vanguard is currently promoting a “premium article” and a “biting commentary” on a Yolo County Deputy District Attorney that smears him as a “most problematic Yolo DA.”  If you want to attack someone in this way then attack elected District Attorney Jeff Reisig. Every employee in the office of the District Attorney works for him.

But there’s a catch. The Vanguard tells its readers “you can only read it if you’re a premium subscriber. But if you subscribe today we’ll send it to you as a bonus.”

I don’t know the county employee used as bait to attract attention and profit, and I have no idea what he’s supposedly done that makes him in the Vanguard’s opinion “problematic” and worthy of “biting commentary.” But what I do know is that it stinks that his reputation is being tarnished so that Vanguard can gain subscribers.

I believe this violates the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

“The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public,” the SPJ states. “Society of Professional Journalists believe[s] that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”

The Society declares four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. Under accountability and transparency it advises that “journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” They should also “distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”

The Vanguard has a conflict of interest, both real and perceived, in reporting on the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office when it writes hit pieces on a prosecutor in an attempt to increase circulation. If the Vanguard agrees with the SPJ that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice,” it would provide this coverage of the District Attorney in the same manner it provides all of its other content.

But for some reason, these hit pieces are apparently so tantalizing that the Vanguard believes they can be used to squeeze $10 a month out of its readers. No longer is news being distinguished from advertising. Instead we have a hybrid that blurs the lines between the two. The Vanguard is advertising a product: “We’ll trash this deputy district attorney in the hope that you’ll give us money.”

Yes, journalism is a business and must make money to survive. But to dangle this public servant’s reputation for profit, damages not only him and his family but also the Vanguard’s credibility as an independent, objective source of news and opinion. You owe it to your readers to provide a free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. And you owe an apology to the employee and the Yolo County District Attorney’s Office.

By the way, Vanguard readers who want to find out about the Yolo County employee mentioned for free can visit the Yolo County DA website. There they can learn that last year he was honored as Prosecutor of the Year. He’s one of eight staff members who “do not simply do their jobs well, they take the initiative to fill office and community needs and in leading by example. Their colleagues, and even their supervisors, look to them for advice and revere them for their passion and problem-solving skills.”

But I guess teasing information like that wouldn’t gain the Vanguard many $120 annual subscribers.

(Editor’s note: please see our response to Mr. Rexroad’s piece).

Matt Rexroad is a Yolo County Supervisor



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Disclaimer: the views expressed by guest writers are strictly those of the author and may not reflect the views of the Vanguard, its editor, or its editorial board.

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19 thoughts on “Vanguard’s Questionable Journalistic Ethics”

  1. John Hobbs

    Thanks for the link, Matt. I absolutely agree, but I would in no way characterize David’s Vanguard as “professional journalism.” David and his staff continue to eschew journalistic norms in favor of self-expression.

    For a retiree the $10/mo.  is better spent buying comestibles and potions.

  2. Roberta Millstein

    Extra!  Extra!  Read all about it!  A newspaper has published an article with a sensational headline criticizing a public official — and charged money for it!  First time ever!

    In other words: There’s nothing here.

    .

    (Full disclosure: I haven’t read the article either.  I was formerly a “premium subscriber” but stopped donating because I took issue about an ongoing matter that is unrelated to the above).

      1. David Greenwald

        Right now I have a part time office assistant.  One day I hope to be able hire some professional reporters.  But not there yet.

        1. John Hobbs

          Sorry, I should have specified the court watch interns and volunteers who apparently serve as moderator and contributors. I suppose it is unreasonable to expect anyone to crack a style book or check grammar. Carry on.

  3. Delia M.,

    The author is directing us to read more info on his chosen website, yet he clearly hasn’t read all the information on the website he is criticizing!

  4. Ron

    In general, I wonder what the future model will be for newspapers and online publications, in terms of profitability.  Perhaps on a somewhat related note, I can’t help but think of how successful Facebook is.

    As much as I disagree with David’s focus at times, he does report on issues and concerns that aren’t discussed elsewhere.  And, he provides a forum where anybody can weigh in (even though this ultimately leads to conflicts and frustrating exchanges).

    Having said that, I’m not willing to voluntarily part with $10/month.  🙂  (Especially when views pushed do not necessarily “reflect my own”.)

    1. Howard P

      Actually Ron, do you know your true ‘costs’ of Facebook?  Ads, information ‘mining’ about you?

      TINSTAAFL…

      Facebook does not exist as a ‘charity’…

  5. Richard McCann

    First, how is the public to learn about a problematic county employee if the press is not allowed to name that employee? How will the DA be pressured to manage a specific employee in a different manner? This is the role of the Fourth Estate, and government officials have always disliked it. Supervisor Rexroad fails to provide us with a viable alternative.

    Second, hasn’t Supervisor Rexroad been on other websites that have links to interesting or even sensational headlines that lead to a paysite? What does he think of the Wall Street Journal or Forbes, both of which block access to articles unless one pays? I see hypocrisy here.

  6. Eric Gelber

    Give me a break. This is the same model used by other news sites. See Slate.com, for example, which requires a paid subscription to access bonus content (Slate Plus). Nothing unethical about it.

  7. Tia Will

    You owe it to your readers to provide a free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. “

    I understand Matt’s concern about accuracy in reporting and not “smearing” a reputation beyond what the facts warrant. However, I strongly disagree with the idea that David or anyone else who is reporting or even just expressing opinion owes the provision of such information and commentary for free. David, just like any other author ( whether or not you choose to call it journalism) has a right to charge for his work, either all or in part, at his discretion.

    I also disagree that having been the recipient of awards means that there is no room for criticism of other aspects of one’s performance.

    1. Howard P

      And, as has been said before, no one is entitled to an audience… we are all free to choose to be in an audience or not… and, if we are in the audience, we are free to walk out, turn our backs, or ignore the speaker’s message.

      As to public criticism of a non-elected person as to one’s job performance, does that apply to all public employees?  Does it also apply to, say doctors in a ‘private’ health system that relies heavily on premiums paid heavily by the State, local, and other public funding?

      I agree that the ‘awards’ thing is not a “shield”.

      1. David Greenwald

        There is a line – I don’t know where to draw that line, but it’s there.

        But I view Deputy DA’s the way I view a police officer – they have a badge and a gun and the ability and authority to deprive people of life and liberty and that makes them different from the clerk at the city finance counter.

  8. Eric Gelber

    . . . last year he was honored as Prosecutor of the Year.

    Might be worth noting that this award is based on votes of DA office staff.

  9. Howard P

    Ron… read Heinlein… good stories, author of ‘Stranger in a Strange Land’, ‘The Moon is a Harsh Mistress’, etc.  Mix of Sci-fi and political /moral commentary.

    TINSTAAFL = There is no such thing as a free lunch… don’t think he ‘coined it’, but he certainly helped make it famous… Matt used the form Heinlein used, TANSTAAFL… we are both correct… I used an earlier source… this blog can be a harsh mistress… pun intended.  GAC

    See,

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_A._Heinlein#Words_and_phrases_coined

    Also, consider Ray Bradbury’s ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes’… the title alone helps explain the last 18 months…

    Much ‘truth’ there, too.

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