Why watchdog journalism is disliked and essential

by Diana Tittle | October 16, 2020
4 min read

The basis of our government being the opinion of the people, the very first object should be to keep that right; and were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.

—Thomas Jefferson

The Sierra County Sun resumes publication today after nearly closing—thanks to the efforts of a small group of citizens.

Banding together as the Campaign to Save the Sun, this ad hoc committee raised the emergency funding to sustain the Sun’s local government and public-interest reporting for another year. In addition, members restructured the Sun as a not-for-profit civic news organization, to be supported by private donations and grants. They supervised the redesign of the Sun’s website and conducted community surveys to guide the careful expansion of the Sun’s coverage.

The Campaign committee also made the impactful decision that access to the Sun’s website should be free to all. Erecting a paywall ran counter to their conviction that the free flow of news and information is the lifeblood of a vibrant democratic society. Because they believe in the ability of public-interest journalism to hold those in power accountable for their actions or inaction, to inform civic discourse, to curb the spread of “alternative facts,” and to enable citizen engagement in local affairs, the Sun’s champions want the publication to reach the widest possible audience.

To earn our readers’ and the larger community’s philanthropic support, the Sun will continue to ask probing questions, dig into public records and research pertinent state and local laws. We are dedicated to marshalling the information citizens need to make sure their local representatives diligently address Sierra County’s needs, challenges and opportunities.

From publication of the Federalist and Antifederalist papers that helped to shape the U.S. Constitution to the exposure of presidential abuse of power in the Watergate era, the free press has acted both as a bulwark of democracy and a check on America’s three branches of government—executive, legislative and judicial. Its centrality to the American experiment is acknowledged in its longstanding designation as the “Fourth Estate.”

Unfortunately, appreciation of journalism’s essential role has never been universal. Now, with the confluence of daily condemnations of “fake news,” rising tides of misinformation and disinformation on social media and declining numbers of professional journalists trained to sort fact from fiction, public mistrust of all media is at a historic high.

Locally, the Sun’s watchdog journalism has discomfited the powers that be. “Pencil in the eye” is the description of one person familiar with the sensation resulting from the Sun’s scrutiny. Our readers take a different view of the Sun’s fact-based, credibly sourced and independent reporting. The survey of charter subscribers we conducted this summer asked them (among other questions) to tell us why they read the Sun. One loyal subscriber responded: “To hear the real story!” Another said that there is “no other source for clear, concise and honest reporting of what is being done in our name and expense.” Stated yet another subscriber, “It’s the only news outlet in T or C that I trust to report events and meetings without bias.”

We recognize our responsibility to ensure that every story we publish meets the highest professional standards of accuracy, balance and fairness. Among my chief duties as editor will be to conduct this assessment. I will also enforce the code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists that the Sun’s editorial team of professional and citizen journalists will follow as our north star. (You can download a printable copy of the code at https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.)

We WILL make mistakes. And we will publicly acknowledge them, if the facts warrant our issuing corrections or apologies. The Sun’s website enables readers to easily provide public comments on our news stories. We will, however, remove anonymous and defamatory posts and unsupported accusations of our misquoting, misconstruing or misleading. Unless made publicly and accompanied by concrete examples, complaints against the Sun’s reporting can only be discounted or dismissed.

We want to hear from the community we serve, and we intend to be proactive in soliciting feedback and constructive criticism. Most of the members of the Campaign to Save the Sun Committee have accepted our invitation to serve either on the Sun’s board of directors or on its first Community Advisory Committee. The board meets regularly if virtually, and the Advisory Committee will be convened semi-annually to offer advice and counsel on the Sun’s coverage and fund-raising performance via teleconference. We will also hold virtual, semi-annual public forums, open to all, for the same purpose.

In conclusion, let me grant that, if the Sun has a “bias,” it is in favor of government accountability and transparency. Our newsgathering and reporting is based on the expectation that government officials and employees will uphold municipal and county codes and state laws, adhere to “good government” practices and policies and faithfully represent and protect the public interest. The Sun’s board of directors and its Community Advisory Committee expect not only those we cover to be responsive and forthright in their dealings with the Sun’s editorial team; we expect it of ourselves.

—Diana Tittle

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Understanding New Mexico's proposed new social studies standards for K-12 students

“The primary purpose of social studies is to help young people develop the ability to make informed and reasoned decisions for the public good as citizens of a culturally diverse, democratic society in an interdependent world.”
—National Council for the Social Studies 

Reader Michael L. Hayes of Las Cruces commented: What impresses me is that both the proposed standards and some of the criticisms of them are equally grotesque. I make this bold statement on the basis of my experience as a peripatetic high school and college English teacher for 45 years in many states with many students differing in race, religion, gender and socioeconomic background, and as a civic activist (PTA) in public education (My career, however, was as an independent consultant mainly in defense, energy and the environment.)

The proposed social studies standards are conceptually and instructionally flawed. For starters, a “performance standard” is not a standard at all; it is a task. Asking someone to explain something is not unlike asking someone to water the lawn. Nothing measures the performance, but without a measure, there is no standard. The teacher’s subjective judgment will be all that matters, and almost anything will count as satisfying a “performance standard,” even just trying. Students will be left to wonder “what is on the teacher’s mind?” or “have I sucked up enough.”

Four other quick criticisms of the performance standards. One, they are nearly unintelligible because they are written in jargon. PED’s use of jargon in a document intended for the public is worrisome. Bureaucrats often use jargon to confuse or conceal something uninformed, wrong or unworthy. As a result, most parents, some school board members and more than a few teachers do not understand them.

Two, the performance standards are so vague that they fail to define the education which teachers are supposed to teach, students are supposed to learn, and parents are supposed to understand. PED does not define words like “explain” or “describe” so that teachers can apply “standards” consistently and fairly. The standards do not indicate what teachers are supposed to know in order to teach or specify what students are supposed to learn. Supervisors cannot know whether teachers are teaching social studies well or poorly. The standards are so vague that the public, especially parents or guardians, cannot know the content of public education.

Three, many performance standards are simply unrealistic, especially at grade level. Under “Ethnic, Cultural and Identity Performance Standards”; then under “Diversity and Identity”; then under “Kindergarten,” one such standard is: “Identify how their family does things both the same as and different from how other people do things.” Do six-year-olds know how other people do things? Do they know whether these things are relevant to diversity and identity? Or another standard: “Describe their family history, culture, and past to current contributions of people in their main identity groups.” (A proficient writer would have hyphenated the compound adjective to avoid confusing the reader.) Do six-year-olds know so much about these things in relation to their “identity group”? Since teachers obviously do not teach them about these other people and have not taught them about these groups, why are these and similar items in the curriculum; or do teachers assign them to go home and collect this information?

Point four follows from “three”; some information relevant to some performance measures requires a disclosure of personal or family matters. The younger the students, the easier it is for teachers to invade their privacy and not only their privacy, but also the privacy of their parents or guardians, or neighbors, who may never be aware of these disclosures or not become aware of them until afterward. PED has no right to design a curriculum which requires teachers to ask students for information about themselves, parents or guardians, or neighbors, or puts teachers on the spot if the disclosures reveal criminal conduct. (Bill says Jeff’s father plays games in bed with his daughter. Lila says Angelo’s mother gives herself shots in the arm.) Since teacher-student communications have no legal protection to ensure privacy, those disclosures may become public accidentally or deliberately. The effect of these proposal standards is to turn New Mexico schools and teachers into investigative agents of the state and students into little informants or spies.

This PED proposal for social studies standards is a travesty of education despite its appeals to purportedly enlightened principles. It constitutes a clear and present danger to individual liberty and civil liberties. It should be repudiated; its development, investigated; its PED perpetrators, dismissed. No state curriculum should encourage or require the disclosure of private personal information.

I am equally outraged by the comments of some of T or C’s school board members: Christine LaFont and Julianne Stroup, two white Christian women, who belong to one of the larger minorities in America and assume white and Christian privileges. In different terms but for essentially the same reason, both oppose an education which includes lessons about historical events and trends, and social movements and developments, of other minorities. They object to the proposal for the new social studies standards because of its emphasis on individual and group identities not white or Christian. I am not going to reply with specific objections; they are too numerous and too pointed.

Ms. LaFont urges: “It’s better to address what’s similar with all Americans. It’s not good to differentiate.” Ms. Stroup adds: “Our country is not a racist country. We have to teach to respect each other. We have civil rights laws that protect everyone from discrimination. We need to teach civics, love and respect. We need to teach how to be color blind.”

Their desires for unity and homogeneity, and for mutual respect, are a contradiction and an impossibility. Aside from a shared citizenship, which implies acceptance of the Constitution, the rule of law and equality under the law, little else defines Americans. We are additionally defined by our race, religion, national origin, etc. So mutual respect requires individuals to respect others different from themselves. Disrespect desires blacks, Jews or Palestinians to assimilate or to suppress or conceal racial, religious or national origin aspects of their identity. The only people who want erasure of nonwhite, non-Christian, non-American origin aspects of identity are bigots. Ms. LaFont and Ms. Stroud want standards which, by stressing similarities and eliding differences, desire the erasure of such aspects. What they want will result in a social studies curriculum that enables white, Christian, native-born children to grow up to be bigots and all others to be their victims. This would be the academic equivalent of ethnic cleansing.


This postmortem of a case involving a 75-year-old women who went missing from her home in Hillsboro last September sheds light on the bounds of law enforcement’s capacity to respond, especially in large rural jurisdictions such as Sierra County, and underscores the critical role the public, as well as concerned family and friends, can play in assisting a missing person’s search.

Reader Jane Debrott of Hillsboro commented: Thank you for your article on the tragic loss of Betsey. I am a resident of Hillsboro, a friend of Rick and Betsey, and a member of H.E.L.P. The thing that most distresses me now, is the emphasis on Rick’s mis-naming of the color of their car. I fear that this fact will cause Rick to feel that if he had only gotten the facts right, Betsey may have been rescued before it was too late. The incident was a series of unavoidable events, out of everyone’s control, and we will never know what place the correct color of her car may have had in the outcome. It breaks my heart to think that Rick has had one more thing added to his “what ifs” concerning this incident.

Diana Tittle responded: Dear Jane, the Sun undertook this investigation at the request of a Hillsboro resident concerned about the town’s inability to mount a prompt, coordinated response to the disappearance of a neighbor. From the beginning, I shared your concern about how our findings might affect Betsy’s family and friends. After I completed my research and began writing, I weighed each detail I eventually chose to include against my desire to cause no pain and the public’s right to know about the strengths and limitations of law enforcement’s response and the public’s need to know about how to be of meaningful assistance.

There was information I withheld about the state police investigation and the recovery. But I decided to include the issue of the car’s color because the individuals who spotted Betsy’s car emphasized how its color had been key to their identification of it as the vehicle described in Betsy’s Silver Alert. Because the misinformation was corrected within a couple of hours, I also included in this story the following editorial comment meant to put the error in perspective: “The fact that law enforcement throughout the state was on the lookout in the crucial early hours after Betsy’s disappearance for an elderly woman driving a “light blue” instead of a “silver” Accord would, in retrospect, likely not have changed the outcome of the search” [emphasis added].

I would also point to the story’s overarching conclusion about the inadvisability of assigning blame for what happened: “In this case, a perfect storm of unfortunate circumstances, many of them beyond human control, hindered the search that it would fall to Hamilton’s department to lead.”

It is my hope that any pain caused by my reporting will eventually be outweighed by its contribution to a better community understanding of what it will take in the future to mount a successful missing person’s search in rural Sierra County.

1 thought on “Why watchdog journalism is disliked and essential”

  1. Bill Brown and I express our sincere gratitude to the citizens who gathered together to sustain and move the Sierra County Sun forward. To have this newspaper in this small town is a triumph given the decimation of newspapers, large and small, around the country. We are very fortunate to have Kathleen Sloan return to T or C after continuing her career of investigative reporting, as she garnered a number of awards in faraway states. We are also fortunate to have a number of experienced individuals who have stepped up to volunteer their expertise, time and excellent skills, providing the backup that this effort requires. Thank you to you all.

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