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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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