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On the Perils of Inexperience, Part 2: Reporting on the Democratic Legislators’ Meeting

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I won’t make a habit of these posts, as they serve little purpose in a print media landscape that has become almost entirely about squeezing out profit at the expense of actual reporting, but the latest example of what passes for ethical reporting in the Lee Newspapers deserves at least brief comment.

Today, the Billing Gazette (and the rest of the Lee papers) ran (or will run) a story about the proposed Democratic legislative caucus at Fairmont Hot Springs in February. The story includes quote from Representatives Jenny Eck and Mary Sheehy Moe, as well as Helena attorney Mike Meloy, all of whom offer their opinions about open meeting laws and party caucuses.

You could read about that in the Lee papers, or you could have read about it at the Montana Free Press four days earlier, when John Adams, formerly at the Great Falls Tribune, wrote about it. Who did he interview for his story? Eck, Moe, Meloy, and a few others. You could have also read or heard it on Montana Public Radio the next day.

What you won’t have read in the Lee story is any attribution for the original reporting done by Mr. Adams. And that’s just incredibly inappropriate. Once upon a time, I believe Lee Enterprises had an online version of their ethics policies, but I can’t seem to locate them any longer, which is probably a good thing. The Associated Press, however, did issue an instructive set of guidelines for giving credit to other journalists back in 2010. It states, in part:

In the age of the Web, the sourcing and reliability of information has become ever more crucial. So it is more important than ever that we be consistent and transparent in our handling of information that originated elsewhere than our own reporting….Giving credit to another organization that broke a story first, even when we match it — or advance it — through our own reporting. Attributing facts we haven’t gathered or confirmed on our own.

Now, it wouldn’t be fair to hold reporters to the ethical standards of another news organization, but I think you’d be hard-pressed to find a journalist who didn’t agree with the broad idea of this standard, that journalists should give credit to those who break stories and respect the effort that goes into reporting them.

And all of this comes only a few weeks after another Lee reporter asked the state to turn over all the information requested by other media outlets in the Bullock/McLain story when Lee was almost a week late in making its request.

As bad as not giving credit to the original reporting done by Adams was, the story further demonstrates the perils of inexperience when the reporter of the Lee story quotes Chuck Johnson, the state political reporter Lee pushed out of his job, to explain the judicial history of the contentious caucus issue:

Longtime state government reporter Chuck Johnson, who is on the Montana Newspaper Association’s FOIA Hotline board, remembered the discussions that led 22 Montana news outlets to file suit in 1995. Actions were occurring in caucus that made the discussion and votes on the floor a formality,” Johnson said. “We felt sometimes that the majority party, that was the Republicans at the time, had already had their discussions and made up their minds.”

In the end, this piece by the new political/state/enterprise/stuff reporter for the Lee Newspapers echoed original reporting done by another reporter four days earlier, including the use of almost all the same sources and relied on the wisdom and experience of the very reporter her chain forced out of his job. While the new reporters certainly aren’t responsible for corporate decisions, they are responsible for their own ethical standards of reporting, as is whomever is editing these stories for Lee.

The Lee chain can keep telling its readership that there’s no cost to forcing out experienced reporters, or even that the product will somehow be better, but the evidence of the past few weeks suggests that, both in terms of reporting, and ethical standards, we’ve already lost a great deal.

Update: An updated version of the Lee story now also includes a quote from MSU political science professor David Parker, as did the original story by Adams.

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About the author

Don Pogreba

Don Pogreba is an eighteen-year teacher of English, former debate coach, and loyal, if often sad, fan of the San Diego Padres and Portland Timbers. He spends far too many hours of his life working at school and on his small business, Big Sky Debate.
His work has appeared in Politico and Rewire.
In the past few years, travel has become a priority, whether it's a road trip to some little town in Montana or a museum of culture in Ísafjörður, Iceland.

4 Comments

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  • How do you feel about the possibility of just 11 Democrats meeting in February. That’s the number they need to have in order to avoid having too many people, and thus opening the meeting to the public.

    I personally feel they should have the meeting open to the public. Remember how much complaint there was over the GOP Jorgenson’s meeting this time last January?

    Why are Democrats setting themselves up for the same? I feel that’s the wrong path to take.

    • I’m inclined to agree with the Republicans and Democrats who think they should be able to caucus. I think there is a difference between a meeting to discuss strategy and one in which public votes are taken. That being said, the law seems to say otherwise.

  • I just went through the interesting exercise of throwing out thousands of old newspaper clippings – all of the hard copy from my life’s work. Even cursory examination of many of my old stories confirmed that I was young and green once. But I stuck with it; got lots of help and encouragement; and gained valuable experience – mostly through trial and error, a lot of error. I struggled to follow big footsteps and, I’m sure, was a frequent source of disappointment to many. It was much the same for those working around me.
    Nobody has higher regard for my former colleagues Chuck Johnson and Mike Dennison than I do, and I believe Lee treated them badly at the end – treated Montanans relying on their reporting badly. But I don’t think the young reporters following in their footsteps are all that different than the young Steve Woodruff, Chuck Johnson, Mike Dennison or (fill in name of your favorite gray-haired journalist).
    I think the young reporters who have grabbed the baton deserve all the encouragement and help that we got back when – if for no other reason than we depend on them and have every reason to want them to succeed. We can at least respect that they’re doing their best, even as we push them to do better.

    • That’s part of the reason I’m choosing not to name the reporters I’ve written about in these two posts. I’d love to hope they’ll improve.

      That being said, though, these are some shady practices. You absolutely have to give credit to the news organization that broke a story, and when you wriye you’re version, you need to add to that work.

      We’re seeing the consequences of the Lee death spiral all over the state, from the insane oped pieces in the IR to the real weakness of political coverage in the state.

      And it matters that the press keep us informed, and that they do it ethically.

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