Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We go to court for your right to information

When my colleagues and I field readers’ phone calls or get their e-mails, many people suggest to us that it must be easy to get the news and information we print – that people simply give it to us.
If only it were that easy.
In fact, lots of people don’t want to talk to us, and people working for government agencies are sometimes the least helpful of all.
But the information that governments don’t want to give out is information that you’re entitled to. Which often prompts us to maneuver through a painstakingly difficult -- and expensive -- legal process to get you some of the most interesting stories we’ve reported.
Earlier this year, for example, we revealed how two local school districts had paid out more than $400,000 in settlements to parents of students with autism. The parents had asserted in lawsuits that inadequate services were being provided to their children.
We obtained that information by using the California Public Records Act, which allows the public to seek specific information from government.
We were compelled to use the act because officials for Lucia Mar Unified and San Luis Coastal would not simply release information about the settlements, citing concern over student confidentiality.
Ultimately, student names were redacted from the records given to us in response to our request. (To be fair, officials with San Luis Coastal were prompt in handling our request for information).
The total dollar settlement was important because one of the districts – the South County’s Lucia Mar -- was struggling with budget challenges. And both Lucia Mar and San Luis Coastal were accused of failing to meet the needs of students under their care.
As San Luis Obispo County’s only daily newspaper, we regularly file requests for information that we believe you have a right to know. Sometimes we don’t succeed. For instance, we sought the recording of the 9-1-1 emergency call recorded by the San Luis Obispo Police Department when the recent double murder-suicide occurred.
We wanted to know – and figured you would also want to know -- if there were details on that tape that might shed light on what happened and why. For example, did the dispatcher handle the call properly? Did the caller say anything that would help explain such a horrific crime?
The department denied our request, citing an exemption under the public records law that covers investigative materials. To date, there is no case law allowing public access to such emergency tapes, so we did not push the point.
But we did seek court relief in two other recent cases where we believed strongly that the public’s right to information was at risk.
Earlier this month we opposed Sheriff Pat Hedges’ request for a restraining order – colloquially called a gag order – that would bar anyone involved in the controversial bugging case from discussing it. Hedges is being accused of bugging an employee’s office and thereby violating that man’s civil rights.
The sheriff acknowledges that he bugged the office of a high-ranking officer to look into criminal allegations, charges he later determined to be unfounded.
The Tribune filed a motion to oppose Hedges’ request. Superior Court Judge Roger Picquet reaffirmed the public’s interest in an open process, ruling against the sheriff, saying his request represented “a textbook example of a chilling effect on the exercise of free speech.”
Similarly, we joined the Los Angeles Times and Associated Press earlier this year to oppose a move by the San Luis Obispo County District Attorney’s Office to have a gag order placed on participants in a case involving a San Francisco doctor. He is charged with two felonies related to a failed attempt to harvest a disabled man’s organs at a local hospital.
The prosecutor said that without a gag order in place for the pretrial phase, the “integrity” of the case would be at risk. Superior Court Judge Martin Tangeman declined the prosecution’s request, saying pretrial publicity alone was not a sufficient reason to restrict the public’s access to information.
We take seriously our rights and responsibilities under the First Amendment, as does our parent company, The McClatchy Co. In its mission statement, McClatchy says: “The company’s newspapers and Web sites are steadfast defenders of First Amendment values and advocates for the communities they serve.”
It is in that spirit that we seek to uphold your right to know by being willing to spend the time and money to go to court, when necessary.
Charles Davis, a journalism professor at the University of Missouri, one of the nation’s foremost journalism schools, puts it this way:
“Freedom of information has come to be defined as a special interest of the press. In reality, it’s a fundamental democratic right.”
_ Tad Weber

Monday, October 22, 2007

A regrettable choice of words

Recently a columnist writing for The Tribune touched on the topic of wedding engagements that break off, and whether a woman should keep a diamond engagement ring or not. In the course of the column the columnist used the term "Indian giver." That elicited this response from reader Bailey Drechsler of San Luis Obipso:
"The irony, of course, in the expression 'Indian giver' is that it completely obfuscates our government’s culpability in breaking treaties with and the decimation of Indian Americans. This is why the expression is offensive and heart-breaking. It’s easy to disregard the potency of 'ethnic slurs' when they don’t carry personal relevance; and cultural sensitivity is often seen as political correctness. Clearly it’s far more complex. "
Features Editor Rochelle Reed replies:
" You are absolutely right--we should not have allowed this insensitive reference into print, and it won't appear again on our pages." The columnist, who is of Hawaiian heritage, especially regrets the choice of words, Rochelle added.
We seek to avoid offending anyone with our writing, so this was an unfortunate exception. We had already spoken to the columnist about the poor use of the term, and I am confident it won't happen again.
_ Tad Weber

Thursday, October 18, 2007

When reader criticism is not helpful

Here is an e-mail I received from a reader today:

"After months of waiting for you to make constructive changes to your publication I am forced to express my opinion of the major changes that have been made to the Tribune.
"I have numerous opportunities to compare the Tribune with the Fresno Bee and the Sacramento Bee. It is hard to believe the three are all owned by the same parent company.
"I was a subscriber to the Fresno Bee for for about 35 years and have subscribed to the Tribune for 15 or 20 years.
"You have always been weak on Local, State, National and world news but since your recent major changes the paper is almost a total waste of time. News that is reported is cursory at best and when reported detail is so lacking the piece is almost all fluff ...
"Please look around and see what can be done with a paper if a professional is at the helm."

Let me emphasize that we welcome legitimate criticism of what we do and produce. But to be helpful, criticism needs to be specific. Tell us exactly what we did not do right, or how you think the paper can be made better.
To compare us to Fresno, Sacramento or any other paper in a metro market is to miss the point. As they have bigger markets to serve with more advertisers than we have here, they can produce more pages every day. That means more state, nation, world and even local news. We will never equal them in terms of volume of news.

Now, as to the reader's point that our recent changes have meant less news in The Tribune, that simply is untrue. The fact is, the recent changes we made did not significantly decrease any amount of news that we publish, save for some features material. In other words, what we cut back on was the “fluff” the reader says we have too much of. We are printing the same amount of local, state and nation/world that we always have.

As I was writing this blog, I got a phone call from a reader who asked, in upset voice, why we had not covered an event he found important. It occurred in San Francisco last Sunday and involved two gay men who, the reader said, had desecrated the inside of a Catholic church with homosexual behavior. I tried to explain that I first had to look at our wire services to see if such a news item had moved. We do not cover news outside our county firsthand because our staff is not big enough to do that. Unhappy with my response, he yelled, "Forget it. You are a ----ing village idiot."

Sheesh. Obviously, that level of discourse is not going to work.

So, readers, when you are specific in your criticism and civil too, it really helps. We can then address the problems you raise.
_ Tad Weber

Monday, October 15, 2007

New on our Web: Daily crime map for Paso Robles

If you have ever wondered where thefts, burglaries and other crimes are occurring in Paso Robles, you now have a way to find out:
Just log onto http://www.sanluisobispo.com/553/, scroll down on the right side of the page and click on Crime Maps. That will take you to a map that highlights all incidents reported to the city of Paso Robles every day.
It’s the second city where our work with the local police department has yielded this benefit. We launched a similar crime map for the city of San Luis Obispo a few months ago. Both police department chiefs – Deborah Linden of SLO and Lisa Solomon of Paso Robles – also will be making sure their department offers regular tips to residents on this same site.
While we will continue to publish stories of the most serious crimes in these two cities, the online maps will give you far more detailed information on your communities than we have space for in the daily Tribune.
Please keep in mind that calls to the police for service sometimes don’t reflect the nature of an incident. A burglary may be reported, for example, but it could turn out to be false. We’ve also excluded exact addresses for incidents involving allegations of rape, sexual assaults, spousal abuse and child abuse.
The maps are typically updated every 24 hours at about 9 a.m. daily, according to Tribune Web developer Danny Thorogood, who created the maps and has worked with the police departments on this project.
The incidents are mapped to individual streets, and will list homicides, sexual assaults, narcotics, assault, animal problems, traffic problems, burglaries, graffiti and other crimes.
We’re working with the city of Atascadero and hope to have its reports within a few weeks. Tribune Web producer Larissa Van Beurden-Doust also is continuing to work with the other police departments in the county to get them on board as well.
Police chiefs Solomon and Linden deserve a great deal of credit for making these public records available to the wider public. An informed citizenry can help police prevent crime and apprehend criminals.
_ Sandra Duerr

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Readers say "maimed veterans'' was insensitive

Two readers have contacted me upset about how we referenced veterans in a headline on a local story we wrote Sept. 26. The story focused on veterans, many injured in the Iraqi war, who were learning to deal with their injuries, embrace life and learn to surf on the Central Coat. The headline read, “Maimed veterans rehab and play in Pismo surf.’’ A secondary headline said “Troops returning from Iraq with amputations or severe burns hit the water with a purpose.’’

Julie Dratwa of Arroyo Grande advised us to look up the word in the dictionary. “Though these boys came back from the war with injuries, they've come back stronger than most of the men and women I meet on the street … not one of them are defective or imperfect! They are heroic!”
Both readers believe we owe the veterans an apology.

The copy editor who wrote that headline chose it to describe the injuries that the veterans sustained in war. He noted that the official dictionary we use, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, defines maimed as an injury causing the loss or crippling of some necessary part of the body. No ill will – or slight to the troops -- was intended, according to News Editor Andy Castagnola. Rather, we covered this story, as we did far more extensively last year, to share with our readers these veterans’ spirit and drive to overcome their injuries and to continue to live purposeful lives. Our story itself discussed the troops’ decision to live and defy the odds, quoting at least one person as saying that he is learning to adapt and reuse his right arm after it was almost lost in an explosion. To be sure, the copy editor could have opted to say “injured veterans’’ instead. It’s less harsh. But then, war is harsh. And that’s the only message our copy editor was trying to get across. We apologize if any one interpreted this differently.

-- Sandra Duerr

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

When we publish Letters to the Editor online

Will Power of Arroyo Grande suggested that it would help readers if we could clearly explain our policy of featuring only certain letters in the widely read print edition of your paper while relegating other letters to the much less read "online" version. "Perhaps The Tribune feels that some opinions need more exposure than others,'' he wrote me.

Here's my answer:
When we publish letters online, it’s typically because they’re in response to stories that only appeared online or because we’ve had an overflow of letters on a specific subject and they’re time sensitive. We have not done it often. “For example, we did that at election time and from time to time, have done it with the Los Osos sewer issue,’’ said Opinion Editor Stephanie Finucane.
In addition, when we receive an extremely long local Viewpoint, she said, “we sometimes give the author the option of running an abbreviated version in the daily, and running the full version online.’’ In all of these cases, we include a refer on the Opinion and Voices pages directing readers to our online site.
For the record, the Opinion and Letters sections on our Web site are consistently among our most popular, according to Online Editor Sally Buffalo. They received more than 20,000 page views during September, she said, adding that “between 9,000 and 14,000 people a day come to SanLuisObispo.com, some returning several times throughout the day. And we’ve seen that number grow in the past few months.”

-- Sandy Duerr

Monday, October 1, 2007

This Vietnam veteran did not like our recent label headline

Harry Galloway, a reader in Atascadero, called to complain about a headline over a Local section story we published last Wednesday. The headline said: "Police chase, shooting has Morro Bay connection." The subhead read: "Fresno officers return fire on fleeing gunman believed headed here to home of a fearful wife." And the overline said: "Vietnam Veteran." It was that last part that drew Galloway's criticism, for he is a Vietnam veteran.
"To me it is so disrespectful because in the public's mind it puts us all in the same category," he said.
I can understand his sensitivities, and see his point. But in this case, the police made the strong link to this man's Vietnam experience as a way to explain why he was acting in such a threatening way now. That past was relevant to the present, according to the police.
Also, in the course of our coverage every year, we write about positive things veterans are doing to better our community, including those who have served in Vietnam. In this way, we show readers that Vietnam veterans do more than act out negative behaviors spawned from their service years.
_ Tad Weber