Debating when to publish public documents

Chronicle crime reporter Whitney Bermes got into a discussion this morning with Missoulian crime reporter Kathryn Haake over documents with stories online.

Particularly, Bermes was surprised that the Missoulian published the ticket along with the affidavit in the case of a 46-year-old Butte man accused of driving drunk the wrong way for 20 miles on Interstate 90.

The ticket, as opposed to the affidavit, contains information such as the man’s exact date of birth, his driver’s license number and his home address.

The full Twitter exchange is in the Storify embedded below (and linked here).

I can understand the differences in choices about publishing information online. The Chronicle chooses not to publish the ticket because these people are merely accused of crimes and because the ticket contains such personally identifying information. Haake made clear that the Missoulian publishes the ticket because “it’s public record.” That’s a fair difference of journalistic opinion. If a little harsh. (Do they publish documents in rape cases too? Because those documents are also public.)

What stood out from the conversation most to me was Haake’s response to Whitney’s initial question:

That shows a reporter too ready to jump to the conclusion that a person is guilty before they’ve had a crack at due process. That makes me uncomfortable.

I also found great irony in the difference in opinion between a reporter at this branch of a Lee Enterprises paper and the editor at another one.

On March 28, the Billings Gazette earned the ire of media critics when Jim Romenesko linked to a Feb. 23 editor’s column titled “The Hidden Freedom of the Press.”

In it, editor Darrell Ehrlick explains why the paper chose not to run a copy of state Sen. Jason Priest’s affidavit online when he was accused of assault. He said, apart from the case involving children, that the documents, “if true, paint a picture that is deeply troubling.”

More importantly, I believe the court documents could paint Priest in a harsh light. And, just as much as I am a fervent supporter of the First Amendment, I am also a big believer in the due process that says it’s up to the courts to decide Priest’s innocence or guilt.

This is a discussion we have had concerning mugshots here at the BDC a while back. We decided that the en masse publishing of photographs of people only accused of crimes was not something we wanted to do because those photos can imply guilt. You’ll of course note that we do publish photos of people in court when we write stories about their cases, though. Clearly, there is disagreement among Montana papers over handling mugshots too.

Norris Geyser Basin in Yellowstone

On being late on the Yellowstone quake story

This tweet met me when I opened up the Twitter this morning:

It seems there was an earthquake in Yellowstone over the weekend, the biggest in three decades, in fact. And as it came along with a swarm of other earthquakes, people (and the media) naturally assumed a connection to the supervolcano.

Scientists say there is no danger of an eruption, but as Blake Maxwell at the Magpie points out in his tweet, there was no way to know that from the Chronicle, until I got into the office this morning, that is.

I’m not sure whether Maxwell is right about the lack of this news from the Chronicle being a sign of the newspaper apocalypse. But still, other news organizations got it out over the weekend while we didn’t — even the Magpie managed to “cover” it by linking to an AP story in the Flathead Beacon in its aggregator.

(In fact, considering that the story has been on the Associated Press for some time, I was surprised to find that it hadn’t moved onto our site yesterday. I’m going to look into why that didn’t happen.)

In reality, it was a minor quake in a sparsely populated area that barely shook anything in West or Gardiner, and there were no reports of damage or injuries. Objectively, it really wasn’t all that newsworthy, my inner defense mechanism says.

And while that all may true, determining newsworthiness isn’t a 100-percent objective process. The quake was a story people would have read — had we carried it and shared it widely. It is, therefore, something we should have had sooner.

There’s no way around the lack of a Monday paper, not unless the company’s profits suddenly soar and stay up consistently. And with no Monday edition to put out, there is of course little justification to staff the newsroom fully on Sundays, which means that we’ll be weak on that day. It’s a fact of modern newspaper life — not necessarily a fact of the newspaper apocalypse.

Yet even a skeletal staff should have been paying close enough attention to hear about the Yellowstone quake. Even if they didn’t feel it shake, they should have felt it newsworthy.

clickbait

NBC Montana reporting non-news from Chicago

A couple days ago, a man named Panson De Oaks wrote to us on Facebook, linking to a video from the TV station WGN in Chicago. The video was a segment on vacation destinations — mostly high-end, expensive ones. Included was a vacation destination in Montana, Paws Up, a “glamping” destination in the Missoula area. When the guest on the video announces the destination is Montana, one of the anchors sort of goes “Ugh.”

It’s clearly a city-folk reaction to activities such as camping, rock climbing and horseback riding, but De Oaks felt that it was a frontal assault on Montana’s reputation. A screenshot of his initial post on the BDC page is below.

Panson De Oaks screenshot

Before I responded to him, I clicked on the link to his Facebook profile, which was mostly private. However, on his “About” tab, one of the websites listed for him is: http://www.pawsup.com. A Google search for his name turns up a more specific connection. De Oaks is the managing director of The Resort at Paws Up, at least according to his LinkedIn profile.

When I noted to him via Facebook that we wouldn’t be getting involved in his company’s dispute with WGN over coverage of his resort, he called it an “attack by a news organization against the state of MT.”

Panson De Oaks 2

So a businessman felt snubbed because of an anchorwoman’s mild distaste for non-urban outdoor activities. I informed him we’d not be getting involved and left it at that.

However, NBC Montana didn’t leave it at that.

No, in an example of unsourced, un-bylined, click-bait journalism at its finest, KTVM posted a skeletal story about the “incident” with the non-news headline “Chicago anchor doesn’t appear to be a fan of MT” and replete with a big Montana state flag image and “UGH” in all-caps with an exclamation point. There is no mention of the clear source of the story, De Oaks, who posted the same news tip to KTVM’s Facebook page as he did to our page. He seems to have gotten a more more receptive response:

KTVM De Oaks


Update

There were some fun new developments in this case of click-baiting this morning. NBC Montana Today posted this message to its Facebook page:

NBC Montana baiting

 

Yep, that’s NBC Montana’s morning show bragging about trying to bait anchor Robin Baumgarten into responding to the non-story the station had already run.

Here are the relevant tweets embedded, starting with Painter’s post at 5:41 this morning:

And Baumgarten’s replies beginning six minutes later:

I suppose I could take this as a journalism lesson. If my story isn’t generating enough buzz, try contacting the sources you didn’t contact before you wrote the story and then ask them to react publicly to the story you already wrote about them. For bonus points, make sure to involve yourself personally somehow, like by inviting said source to an activity you already know they’ll reject.

Celebrity excitement in the newsroom

A few of the staffers here in the newsroom are crazy about John Mayer, so when I typed “Bozeman” into the search box on social media tracking site Topsy today and these tweets turned up near the top, it elicited plenty of excitement.

Yes, that’s John Mayer and Katy Perry at the Wal-Mart in Bozeman.

Celebrity sightings aren’t rare in Bozeman. A friend of mine who worked at Barnes & Noble often saw celebs in the store, and there are plenty of tales of the sightings in Paradise Valley, including the recent recap by the Montana Pioneer of Steve McQueen’s time there.

There’s no grand point to this post, other than to show how a couple of nine-day-old tweets can get the John Mayer fans in the newsroom bouncing off the walls.

Perhaps you have a celebrity counter story? Share in the comments.

Montana expands inmate notifications for victims

Montana Department of CorrectionsThe notification system used by the Montana Department of Corrections to let victims know about changes to an inmate’s status or location has received some upgrades, the department said Thursday.

The Victim Information and Notification Everyday system, or VINE, has added text messaging and an iOS and Android app to the telephone, email and TTY notifications that were already available.

Last year, VINE also added tracking for Montana offenders on probation and parole. Before, it had tracked only those in prisons and pre-release centers. It does not track juveniles or county or federal inmates.

In 2013, the VINE system sent some 30,000 messages to victims, law enforcement and court personnel, journalists and others.

VINE is provided by the Kentucky-based Appriss Company, and the upgrade was paid for by a federal Justice Department grant and funding from the 2012 Legislature.

Lauren Maschmedt at work

The worthlessness of “digging deeper”

One morning. I stayed off Twitter for a one morning, and this is what happens?

The Chronicle’s Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan tweeted his amusement and frustration at NBC Montana’s Lauren Maschmedt for her falling prey to that TV news stable: B-roll that shows the reporter herself doing something mundane.

It snowballed a bit from there.

Maschmedt eventually responded with sarcasm and veiled charges of bullying.

Bullying might be too strong a word, but there is definite mockery there. It’s certainly not fun to be the brunt of a Twitter conversation questioning the job that you’ve done — especially when one of the people joining in is a fellow TV newser.

And, admittedly, some of the non-Maschmedt tweets are a bit cavalier and maybe unprofessional. I’ll chalk that attitude up to a passion to see the job of journalism done well, no matter who is doing it.

Yet the criticism of NBC Montana’s story is deserved.

The story in question is about the FBI filing charges against Bozeman escapee Kevin A. Briggs. Maschmedt’s voiceover carries us through all the facts, but the video accompanying it shows us close-ups of the federal documents too close up for us to really read anything in them, shots of Maschmedt sitting at a table in a darkened room reading those documents, a close-up of her hand taking notes on a legal pad, on her eyes scanning the lines of text.

Shots of a reporter “digging deeper” into documents have no place in a news story. They aren’t telling the public anything important. Instead, those valuable airtime seconds are marketing the reporter and the news station.

“See? See? Look how much work we are doing to inform you, viewers. The work is so important, watch some of it being reenacted while my voiceover tells you what I found.”

I do see. I see you doing your job, plain and simple. But the work of journalism isn’t news; the results are news. And those results are what we need to be giving viewers and readers, not self-aggrandizing B-roll.

A parallel is to be found in a recent post from journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis, who is somewhere in the middle of a series on rethinking TV news. Jarvis’ post targets the stand-up (where a reporter simply stands in front of the camera at some location and says things into the camera).

The stand-up has zero journalistic value. It wastes time. It wastes precious reportorial resource. It turns the world into a mere backdrop for entertainment. It’s a fake.

The B-roll shots of the reporter walking in to a public building or flipping through file drawers are just as big wastes of time.

Sometimes we get stuck in the form of news and forget that the first mission is to deliver the facts. TV reporters have to fill airtime, and they are taught to fill it with something other than them just sitting there reading the news. It’s a convention — just like the one that we face at the newspaper when we have to have one story with “main art” on the section front pages — even if that means covering less-than-impactful feature stories.

But to keep our work relevant, we have to remember that conventions are not set in stone, and that if there’s a better way to tell people the news efficiently, we should take advantage of it. Our audiences will appreciate it.

And snarky journalists won’t make fun of you for it.

umlockdown large

Missoula robberies spark #UMlockdown hashtag

If you were following the state news at all yesterday on Twitter, then you probably already know about the hashtag #UMlockdown which manifested around the tense situation in Missoula on Thursday morning.

A couple of businesses were robbed by an armed man who was then on the loose in the campus area. UM went into lockdown, as did other area schools and businesses. With the temperature in the double digits below zero and the robber apparently not wearing much in the way of winter gear, residents were also asked to lock their doors and stay put.

It was also thought that the robber could have been Kevin A. Briggs, the man who, while shackled, walked right out of the Bozeman Police Department on Feb. 1 and hasn’t been caught yet. Police say he has been sighted in Missoula.

Bored college students took to Twitter when their professors ran out of material. Most of those tweeting on the hashtag found plenty of humor in the situation, and the student newspaper at UM, the Kaimin, collected the best-of tweets in a Storify.

I’m embedding it here not to minimize the seriousness of the robberies in Missoula but to show how vital social media is to communicating during emergencies and how key it is to blowing off steam.

Also, I wanted to make such a Storify myself today, but I didn’t have time.

The mystery of the disappearing KTVM story

Cops and courts reporter Whitney Bermes pointed out this interesting disappearing-story mystery today.

Whitney received a phone call today from VOICE Center Director Alanna Sherstad and Assistant Managing Editor Ted Sullivan got one from Bozeman police Chief Ron Price. Both callers wanted to talk about a story detailing the affidavit for Kevin A. Briggs.

Briggs is the man police say walked out the front door of the Law & Justice Center in Bozeman while wearing shackles and handcuffs. He was initially arrested in connection with a reported rape and knife assault.

nbc montana logo

NBC, said Sherstad and Price, had aired a story on its 10 p.m. newscast in which the station identified the woman by her initials. Both wanted to speak about why they thought that was a bad idea and make a case for why the Chronicle shouldn’t.

It was an argument they didn’t have to make. The Chronicle has a policy of not identifying confirmed or alleged victims of sexual assault. We even went back and removed a few details from our initial report this morning that, in retrospect, could have been too harmful for the woman in this case.

Here’s where the mystery comes in. NBC aired the story, but the video for it can be found nowhere on its site. Searching for “Briggs” on the KTVM site brings up a video story titled “Court documents lay out events leading up to Briggs arrest,” but the video that plays has to do solely with University of Montana students’ reactions to the possibility Briggs was in their town. It’s clearly not the correct story.

A tweet from NBC Montana still points to the story:

But it leads to a dead link.

This is me hypothesizing about the missing story: I believe KTVM realized that it had gone too far with its report and “disappeared” the story from its website.

I see this as a serious matter, ethically.

While it was probably the right decision to trim back the details in its report to minimize harm (an SPJ Code of Ethics pillar) KTVM was wrong to make the story disappear.

NBC should have corrected its story online, noting what was changed in the article (as we do at the Chronicle). And it should have aired a correction on its next broadcast. Deleting the mistake and trying to forget it existed is not good ethical practice.

Of course, neither is letting an outside party influence your coverage, like letting a couple phone calls guilt you in to deleting something. Again, I don’t know that’s what happened in this case, but it seems possible considering the phone calls Whitney and Ted received this morning. (Acting independently is another SPJ ethics pillar.)

Come to think of it, I have never seen a TV station in our area issue a correction. This concerns me because no newsroom gets it right 100 percent of the time. (I could always be wrong. If you’ve seen one, feel free to let me know in the comments.)

Department of Labor and Industry launches new website

Montana Department of Labor and Industry homepageThe Montana Department of Labor and Industry announced Monday the launch of its new department Web page at dli.mt.gov.

In a written statement, the department said the new site will “improve functionality and customer service for Montana workers, employers, contractors and taxpayers.”

The site was designed and built in-house and is responsive. The redesign is not complete, and sections of the site will be reworked over the next several months. The work should be done by summer.

Online services like unemployment claims filing and professional licensing will continue through the transition, the department said.

Bridger Creek letter

Naming names in Bridger Creek

For the past two days, the newsroom has been talking about the lawsuit threatened by residents in the Bridger Creek subdivision, which is located next to the old city landfill.

The claimants — seven people so far — want the city to pay each of their four households around $3 million to compensate them for alleged losses due to the landfill gases seeping into their homes. The city has previously called the seeping gases, which come from the decomposing garbage, its “most important issue.”

Redactions

We were first tipped off to the story Wednesday evening. It was then that KBZK reported on the claim notice filed by the Bridger Creek residents. The KBZK story did not name anyone involved — not the claimants, not the attorneys. It didn’t even name city attorney Greg Sullivan, instead mentioning him by title only.

Included with that story was a PDF copy of the claim notice. It was heavily redacted. All the names were removed, apart from the name of the Bozeman law firm: Moriarity, Badaruddin and Brooke.

I emailed a link to the story to city reporter Erin Schattauer that night and asked her to look into it first thing Thursday morning. Erin called the city but wasn’t able to quickly get a copy of the letter from them. So she did the next logical thing: She called one of the other agencies reported to have received the letter, in this case, Gallatin County.

Within an hour we had a copy of the letter from the county. It was complete and un-redacted.

Disappearing story

Meanwhile, the story and the PDF of the letter on KBZK’s website vanished. Links to the story from social media led to a file-not-found error message.

The story reappeared on KBZK sometime later Thursday, along with a new version of the PDF. It was still redacted, but it now sported a KBZK watermark.

Erin continued reporting her story. She called the law firm and spoke to attorney Edward Moriarity, who was also one of the claimants. He was upset that the paper had the un-redacted document, wondered several times where we got it and said he hoped Erin and her family never had “to go through anything like this.”

KBZK has since posted more another story about the lawsuit threat. KTVM did as well, and so did ABC Fox Montana. None of their stories named the claimants.

On Friday, the city held a press conference to state that it would respond to the notice within the 120-day time limit. There was no indication of what that response would be.

At the press conference, the city handed out copies of the claim notice letter. All names were redacted from it, and the city manager told Erin that the city had allowed the claimants to decide what information was blacked out.

Naming names

If you clicked on the link above or read the front page of Friday’s paper, you know that the Chronicle named the claimants. Why did we name them when all the other local news outlets didn’t?

Well, I can’t say why they didn’t, but I can say why we did.

First, state law tells us that every citizen has the right to “inspect and take a copy of any public writings of this state” and that public officers are “bound to give the citizen on demand a certified copy of it.”

The only exemptions from this law are library records, burial site records, constitutionally protected information and records in which “an individual privacy interest” exceeds “the merits of public disclosure.” The law give the examples of trade secrets or matters related to safety.

There is no question that it was a public document; it became public the moment the city (and county, and state) received it.

The major factor here is the right to privacy. It’s a right granted by the state constitution. In fact, privacy is so important it’s granted before the right to bear arms and vote – though it’s granted after the “right to know.”

The public’s right know has to “clearly” exceed the individual’s right to privacy. And in the minds of the editors, there was no question that the public’s right to know exceeded any right to privacy.

These are people asking for a total of more than $12 million in public money. The merits of their case notwithstanding, that’s a lot of taxpayer money.

I don’t know how KBZK got the document in the first place — a leak from the claimants, diligent city records reporting or something else — but it was clearly to the advantage of the claimants to have their story put before the public’s eye without having to expose their identities.

Remember there is no lawsuit yet, only the threat of one. But merely having mention of that threat in the news puts pressure on the city to settle for considerable sums of money to avoid the expense of the lawsuit.

People seeking millions from the city without so much as exposing their names doesn’t sit right with me, and I think our other local news organizations should follow our lead and report the names.