Monday, November 29, 2010

Covering foster care in Los Angeles: Does anyone at the L.A. Times read the L.A. Times Code of Ethics?

           One mouse click away from Los Angeles Times Assistant Managing Editor David Lauter’s attempt to defend the Times’ child welfare reporting, an attempt most notable for its immaturity, is the Times’ Code of Ethics.  Here’s the beginning of the section on the use of anonymous sources:

We report in environments – Hollywood and Washington, to name two – where anonymity is routinely sought and casually granted. We stand against that practice and seek to minimize it. We are committed to informing readers as completely as possible; the use of anonymous sources compromises this important value.

These standards are not intended to discourage reporters from cultivating sources who are wary of publicity. Such informants can be invaluable. But the information they provide can often be verified with sources willing to be named, from documents, or both. We should make every effort to obtain such verification.

The code goes on to list a series of strict criteria for using anonymous sources.

           Compare that to this example from Daniel Heimpel’s analysis of Times child welfare reporting in The Huffington Post.  Heimpel discusses a story in which Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered L.A. Times, writes that:

"The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department [of Children and Family Services] hid dozens of cases from the public," …

            Heimpel points out, however, that

           The report itself was devoid of any indication that the Department had "hid" anything. Rather Mike Gennaco, Chief Attorney at the Office of Independent Review wrote in the report, "that during OIR's review, it received no information to believe that this alleged inconsistent approach in assessing child fatalities between different components of DCFS was either intentional or designed."

            On October 12th, DCFS Communications Director Nishith Bhatt sent the Times' Therolf an email asking where in the report Gennaco had used the word "hid." Three minutes later Therolf replied, writing: "In his oral remarks, Gennaco said dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public."

Nowhere in the transcripts from the August 31 Supervisorial hearing in which Gennaco shared his report did he indicate that the Department had hid child deaths. Even when pressed by Supervisor Zev Yaroslovsky that "there are some reasons to believe that this is not just an accidental disconnect, that the left hand didn't know what the right hand was doing," Gennaco clarified that he had "no evidence" of any intent to suppress information.

            When asked again by Bhatt to produce documentation, Therolf retreated from his email response claiming that Gennaco had said, "dozens of cases were inappropriately hidden from the public," in his "oral statements." Instead, Therolf wrote that Gennaco's purported statement that the Department had "hid" cases was "unpublished reporting."

"Your original message was treated as a formal request for correction," Therolf writes to Bhatt, "and I informed you that my editor and I see no need for correction. As you know, unpublished reporting is protected, and I am unable to share it with you. The story speaks for itself."

On October 14th, Gennaco sent an email to Times editors David Lauter, Megan Garvey and the Reader's Representative demanding a correction over the Times' assertion that he had said the Department "hid dozens of cases from the public."

Despite this request, on Oct 19th the Times published another article stating that Gennaco, "found the department inappropriately hid dozens of cases from public view." But strangely added: "whether the failure to make the files public was intentional or not remains under review." By definition, to hide is to put something out of sight. This renders these two statements contradictory.

Despite the contradictions within the story itself, and two requests to set the record straight, no clarification or correction was ever given.

          So not only does the written record fail to confirm Therolf’s “unpublished reporting” it contradicts Therolf’s claim. 

          The Times ethics guidelines say that when anonymity is granted

Stories should identify sources as completely as possible consistent with the promise of anonymity.  In particular, a source’s point of view and potential biases should be disclosed as fully as possible. 

         Also, it is traditional journalistic practice, when an anonymous source makes a claim, for those disputing the claim also to be quoted so readers can make up their own minds.

         Yet in this case, the claim that "The county's Office of Independent Review recently found that the department [of Children and Family Services] hid dozens of cases from the public" simply was presented as fact.  Readers were not even told, and have not been told in the pages of the Times to this day, that the office’s chief attorney says the OIR makes no such claim.  Lauter does not address this at all in his response, except indirectly here:

          Finally, press spokesmen for DCFS and L.A. County have said that The Times “ignored” requests for corrections on several stories. This, too, is incorrect. All requests by county officials alleging inaccuracies in Times stories have been reviewed. In the few instances in which the stories included inaccurate passages, we have published corrections. In other cases, we have determined that the story was correct, and no correction has been warranted.

          In other words, Lauter is saying, we’re not ignoring you, we just think you should go [expletive] yourself!

Tomorrow, I’ll take a precise look at the section of the Code of Ethics on “precision.” And if you really want a good laugh, compare Times child welfare coverage to the section of the ethics code on “fairness.”