Thursday, October 2, 2008
Responsible journalism is in the eye of the beholder. On the national stage, candidates John McCain and Sarah Palin have complained about unfair questions and "gotcha journalism," while the media community defend the interviews as asking the tough questions. At the local level, we joined the ranks of media outlets across the country to find ourselves under attack.
Recently, reporter Joanne Faryon investigated San Diego's low ranking among cities that distribute food stamps. She found that only one in three people who are eligible actually apply. And that means the county is losing more than $140 million in free food.
This is a big story. These are days of shrinking wealth. Every income bracket is being squeezed with housing, food, transportation, clothing and education expenses.
To learn more, Joanne talked to Donna Hand, Deputy Director for Health and Human Services in the North Region. As it turned out, Ms. Hand did poorly in the interview. She misquoted information and at times got information entirely incorrect. The most egregious mistake came when Ms. Hand was asked whether the county received funding to administer the program. Ms. Hand said no. Joanne repeatedly tried to clarify. Again, the answer was no.
However, San Diego County does, indeed, receive $28 million to administer the food stamp program. (Whether those funds are enough, or whether they are being used effectively is the subject for another report.)
Here's the issue: How much responsibility does a reporter take for how an interview subject performs? And how much knowledge are officials expected to have at their fingertips? Is it responsible for KPBS to include Ms. Hand's interview as part of the story?
We decided yes. Ms. Hand is a senior executive who should know how her programs are administered. Her strategic decisions play an important role in determining how needy families receive food stamp benefits. And it is not like we're playing "gotcha" journalism, because we had told Ms. Hand what we wanted to talk about in advance of the interview.
The public relations staff for the county claimed that we're being irresponsible. They say it's unrealistic for an upper level manager to know fiscal details of the food stamp program. Additionally, a county spokesperson says that they will no longer cooperate with KPBS on the story.
I think NOT a case of “gotcha” - but Donna Hand should get a chance to answer with numbers on the record, one would hope she has done this already.
October 13, 2008 at 5:41 pm
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Thanks Chris for your comments. I wanted to let you know what happened after this interview.
I contacted a county PR spokesperson several times after this conversation to get the numbers. In the end, the county provided some of them, the state gave us other information. We found other documents on-line.
Most of that information was included in the radio news story and the video blog that followed.
You bring up an interesting point though, should people who are interviewed be given do-overs?
Does it depend on whether they are elected officials, high-ranking bureacrats or ordinary citizens? I’ve always believed there are different rules for ordinary citizens - people who make news by virtue of an event in their lives or circumstance. Speaking to the media is not part of their job description and they are allowing us the privelege of peaking into their lives. On the other hand, elected officials use the media as a way to get their message to the public. They should expect to be held accountable for decisions and policy. So, where do senior bureacrats rank in all of this? Maybe they’re somewhere in between. I would have to agree with KPBS Radio’s John Decker in this circumstance. There is an expectation that Ms Hand would know where the funding for her programs comes from.
For the record, we’ve invited PR officials from the county’s Health and Human Services agency to comment on this post.
October 14, 2008 at 5:08 pm
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All public officials are responsible for having a working knowledge of what their jurisdiction and job description entails. If they don’t know an answer, they can withhold a statement until they verify anything they tell a reporter. If they do not meet the basic, minimum requirements in terms of their knowledge or what they should know....they should be replaced by someone more competent.
I’d rather err on the side of an agressive or curious press than on the side of a public official. Here’s to more excellent in journalism.
Joe V from San Diego
March 13, 2009 at 4:31 pm