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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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DON’T-MISS EVENT

“Growing Independence” Call for Volunteers

T pr C community garden

Saturday, May 15 and Saturday, May 22 from 9-10 a.m., East Fourth Street Community Garden, Truth or Consequences

Growing Independence is a new local not-for-profit organization that provides resources to encourage and enable Sierra Countians to grow their own food and reduce dependence on long-distance supply chains. This Saturday, Growing Independence will be planting “starts” at the Community Garden on East Fourth Street behind the Truth or Consequences Public Library. The following Saturday, deer fence to protect the plantings will be installed. Interested parties are invited to come either or both days to lend a hand with this initiative to restore the community garden as a flourishing source of fresh vegetables to be donated to area food banks and other hunger-fighting programs. Please RSVP to 575-202-8642 if you intend to volunteer.

Sierra County Farmers Market Vendor Meeting

Sierra County Farmer's Market banner

CANCELLED May 15, from 10 a.m.-noon. Ralph Edwards Park, Truth or Consequences.

The vendor meeting May 15th has been CANCELLED. Ralph Edwards Park is not ready. The vendor sign-ups and site allocations will be handled on June 5th at the first market day of season. Vendors who wish to submit their paperwork in advance should contact market manager Colleen IN PERSON.

Colleen Davis
300 E. 4th Avenue
Truth or Consequences
607-227-4137 cell

HAVE YOU SEEN?

Third day on the job, Swingle brings transparency and reality to T or C’s budgeting process, Parts 1 and 2

In addition to contending with a $1.6 million deficit in the fiscal year 2021-2022 draft budget, new city manager Bruce Swingle informed the city commissioners that they must play a lead role in identifying departmental spending priorities and cuts and devising a plan within two years to end the practice of balancing the budget with transfers from utility fees.

Peter A. Lawton (T or C) commented on Part 1: It is nice to see there finally seems to be an adult in charge in our city. Great article!

Barb Dewell (T or C) commented on Part 2: I’m really surprised so much is going on in T or C that the commissioners don’t know anything about. It’s very disappointing. They don’t even appear to want to ask questions. It seems reports are made, Luna makes her comments, no one else has a question or comment, and the issue either goes the way Commissioner Luna wants or it’s tabled, I guess. This isn’t how our city should be run. Thank goodness for City Manager Swingle. I hope he is able to corral all this spending and these very loose approvals and get the city finances back on track. I know most residents are really worried about all this, as I’ve been, and we have high hopes for City Manager Swingle’s leadership.

Ronn Fenn (T or C) commented on Part 2: For a long time I’ve been questioning why this airport is a T or C-funded facility and not a county facility with its location about five miles from the recognized city proper and serving a largely non-resident user base. It and its annual transfer funds to support its operation needs to be investigated. This facility is not and probably never will be an income-producing asset. Its operating costs should be spread throughout the county and not borne solely by T or C’s residents. Pie in the Sky is not likely to land in T or C.

Lydia Dixon (T or C) commented on Part 2: This is great reporting. People would not know most of this if it were not published here. Thanks!

 

 

Welcome, Bruce!

Now that you’ve had a couple days to settle in as city manager, please consider implementing these 10 doable fixes that will make the governance of the City of Truth or Consequences more transparent, responsive and effective.

Reader Joey Perry (T or C) commented: Great suggestions. Here’s one more. Make the meeting agendas more informational. In addition to the ordinance number, include a sentence or two (in plain English) saying what the item is about and why it is on the agenda—e.g., what is the issue? This would help me decide if I want to attend a meeting, or write a letter to the manager or the commissioners, expressing my views ahead of the meeting.

1 Comment 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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