Friday, October 3, 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.
Here's the finished report, and here's the unedited raw footage. What do you think?
- John Decker is KPBS Radio's Director of News and Programming.