Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Media Struggle with Story on Oconee Meetings Violations

Thanks for the email

When I posted my blog late on the night of May 23 revealing that Oconee County Board of Commissioners Chairman Melvin had called not two but three meetings without proper public notice in a 13-month period ending on January 1 of this year, I sent email messages to reporter Adam Thompson of the Athens Banner-Herald and Editor Blake Giles of The Oconee Enterprise.

Thompson sent me an email message the next day and posted a brief item on his blog shortly after I responded. He followed with a lengthier story in the paper on Monday in which he obtained comments from the three commissioners at the meeting, Davis, Margaret Hale and Chuck Horton.

The paper also ran an editorial criticizing the county for its violations of the state’s open records laws on Tuesday.

So far, the Enterprise has not written anything about the Dec. 1 meeting.

The Enterprise first reported the story of the second meeting back in February. The meeting itself had been on Dec. 17. (The Enterprise does not have a fully accessible electronic archive to which I can link.)

The way the two papers have responded is illustrative of two related problems facing the established media. First, journalists historically have had trouble dealing with citizen activists. Second, they have trouble dealing with the competition they now receive from citizen journalists.

The basics of the three meetings are pretty simple. On Dec. 7, 2007, the Oconee County Board of Commissioners held a meeting in Madison for which it had not given proper public notice. I posted a story on my blog on Jan. 6, 2008, about the meeting.

The Banner-Herald followed my story with several of its own and criticized Davis editorially. The Enterprise never reported on the meeting.

When the Enterprise broke the story about the second meeting of county officials to discuss the future of the courthouse, the Banner-Herald followed with its own story. The paper also ran a critical editorial. No public notice had been given of that meeting.

The third meeting was a prelegislative meeting with Rep. Bob Smith and Sen. Bill Cowsert. No public notice was given of that meeting.

Reporter Thompson, in his blog on May 24, praised me for revealing the Dec. 1 meeting, but he also personalized the issue, by writing that "Both Becker and Davis have been here before."

He did create a link in the blog to my postings, and he attributed to me the basic information about the meeting. At that point, the story, according to Thompson’s account, was that a citizen had found documents that the citizen felt illustrated that the county had held yet another illegal meeting.

The scientific literature on journalism is replete with references to this type of treatment of citizens. Citizens who challenge governmental leaders are treated with caution. The general assumption is that the governmental leaders know more.

This is contrary to the popular view expressed by journalists that they represent the citizens and are the watchdogs of journalism. The evidence is that the media sometimes play that role, but it is more common in movies than in real life.

Thompson, who will be leaving the paper on June 12 to go to law school, generally has been quite good at treating citizens as important news sources for news stories about the county. This was not true of his immediate predecessors.

I learned about the Dec. 1 meeting as a result of open records requests I did of the county and of the Board of Education. I put some of the key documents on my web site, and these were available to Thompson.

Of course, they could have been fakes, and he certainly should have authenticated them via his own request for documents before he wrote his story.

Instead, he advanced the story–journalistic language for additiong something to the story beyond what was initially reported–by revealing that the Dec. 1 meeting between state Rep. Smith and Sen. Cowsert and local government officials was an annual event, according to local officials, and usually was hosted by the Chamber of Commerce.

He also got quotes about the meeting from Davis, Hale and Horton, who attended the meeting.

What Thompson did not do was indicate in the printed story–or in the online version–that the Jan. 1meeting had been reported on initially by me and that the documents illustrating exactly what had been done were available on my web site. He also never created any links in the online story to those documents.

The established media–called main stream media or legacy media by many–are having difficulty acknowledging that they are now sharing their occupation with a group of others often referred to as citizen journalists.

In Oconee County, citizens can supplement the information available from the daily Banner-Herald and the weekly Enterprise by feeds from blogs by former BOC Chairman Wendell Dawson, Watkinsville Councilman Brian Brodrick, North High Shoals Councilman Steve Holzman, Democratic Party activist Dan Matthews, Republican Party activist Kate McDaniel, and me.

Citizen journalism has received a lot of attention nationally as the traditional media have cut staff and struggled with declining circulation, decreased advertising revenue and increased competition. Some of this attention is reflected in the Knight Citizen News Network, which now lists this blog among the citizen journalism sites in Georgia.

The Enterprise has been particularly blind to most of these alternative information sources, as its behavior on this story illustrates.

I didn’t bother to send an email message to the other weekly newspaper in the county, The Oconee Leader, since it rarely covers government news. But it should know how to monitor my blog. It can be done by signing up as a follower on the site, by using an RSS reader or by asking me to be put on my listserv, which contains 115 email addresses. These options are listed on the site itself.

The Leader also hasn’t written about the Dec. 1 meeting as of yet.

In the five days that followed my May 23 posting, 295 unique visitors went to my blog to read the story. I posted a new story on the sixth day.

That 295 is a far cry from the potential readers of a story in the Banner-Herald, which has an audited weekday circulation of 3,800, or of the Enterprise, which has an unaudited circulation of 4,000.

That was the reason I sent the tip to the Banner-Herald and the Enterprise. I wanted to give the Thompson and Giles time to get the story into their papers.

Thompson really did advance the story, not only through revealing that the meetings were routinely held without public notice, but also through the quotes. One from Chairman Davis was particularly informative.

Thompson wrote:

"Last week, Davis defended his actions and denied holding secret meetings. But he acknowledged that if he'd asked, the county attorney probably would have advised him to advertise the session with local legislators."

The state open meetings law is very clear that this was suposed to be a public meeting. As I pointed out in my blog, it does not matter if the Chamber of Commerce called the meeting or if Davis called it.

In this case, the evidence is clear that Davis alone called the meeting. The documents I put on my web site and to which I linked in my blog are unambiguous. They came from Davis.

Violating the law, however, has few consequences. It states:

"Any person knowingly and willfully conducting or participating in a meeting in violation of this chapter shall be guilty of a misdemeanor and upon conviction shall be punished by a fine not to exceed $500."

Citizens can bring charges against the officials, but that puts a pretty heavy burden on citizens.

As I told Thompson when he asked, I did send a note on May 24 to Stefan Ritter, Georgia deputy attorney general, asking him to read my blog. Given his unresponsiveness to my previous formal complaints about what I feel were other open meetings violations in the county, I chose not to file a formal complaint this time.

Ritter wrote me back two days latter. The letter simply said: "Thank you."