Friday, December 3, 2010

Covering foster care at the LA Times: The “readers’ representative” sets the fairness bar very low

            According to the Organization of News Ombudsmen (ONO), back when it was considered one of America’s great regional dailies, the Louisville Courier Journal was the first to name an ombudsman – someone to respond to reader complaints about the newspaper, both privately to the staff and by writing a column assessing how well the newspaper was doing its job. 

            Any institution that constantly demands that everyone else be held “accountable” should have a truly independent ombudsman.  Very few news organizations do - it took the Jayson Blair scandal to push The New York Times into creating such a position - and fewer still have anyone in the job worthy of the name.  The Courier Journal itself does not appear to have one anymore.

            The best way to do this is the method used by the Times and, for much longer, The Washington Post.  They hire someone from outside the paper for a fixed term, typically two years.  That way the ombudsman doesn’t have to worry about being fired for being too hard on the paper – he or she’s already been fired.

            The best of the ombudsmen, among those whose work I’ve read, was Geneva Overholser, when she was at the Post.  One of the few items entirely unrelated to child welfare on the bulletin board here at NCCPR World Headquarters is her 1996 critique of the Post, the Times and the Los Angeles Times over how all three mishandled a major media controversy of the day.  (It’s available in the Post’s paid archive.)

            But ombudsmen like Overholser are very rare.  People naturally hire in their own image.  So editors tend to hire ombudsmen who think pretty much like the editors – and then tell them, in effect, “go ahead, criticize my work.”

            But at least when they call the job ombudsman (or, in the case of the Times, Public Editor) one sometimes sees serious criticism of the news organization’s performance.  When the job is labeled “readers’ representative” or something similar, it generally seems to be held by a longtime employee of the paper whose job is to write columns like “Buyouts, layoffs, will make your Daily Bugle even better!” (If anyone knows of an exception to this rule, I’d be glad to hear about it.)

            So I wasn’t really expecting much when I submitted my own complaint about Los Angeles Times child welfare coverage to their “readers’ representative,” Deirdre Edgar.

            Just before all hell broke loose concerning Times child welfare coverage (meaning, before I knew that there are questions about things like the accuracy of quotes) I complained about one specific item: how Garrett Therolf, the embattled reporter for the beleaguered Times, had misrepresented an evaluation of the Los Angeles County child welfare waiver.

             My e-mail read in part:

   As is described in detail in my organization’s child welfare Blog today, in three separate stories, Garrett has suggested that an independent evaluation of Los Angeles County’s child welfare “waiver” concludes that the waiver caused an alleged increase in reabuse of children known to the Department of Children and Family Services.

            Not only does the evaluation report say nothing of the kind, in three separate places – p.2, p.11 and p.137 - the report specifically warns readers against drawing any such conclusions.

            To which the readers’ repesentative replied in an e-mail:

I understand what you’re saying, but I don’t think the articles make the conclusion that you believe they do, and therefore no correction is warranted. You even couch your words in your e-mail and in your post – saying the articles “suggest” or “imply” that the waiver led to the increase in child deaths. But the articles don’t say that. However, the Oct. 19 article does directly quote Charlie Ferguson, one of the researchers, who says the data show “an area of concern.”

            So apparently, it’s o.k. to mention the alleged increase in three separate stories about the waiver, and quote the author of the study as saying it’s “an area of concern” but leave out the fact that any increase in child abuse for any reason always is “an area of concern.”  And, apparently, it’s o.k. to leave out the same author’s three specific warnings that there is no evidence of cause and effect.  All of this is fine with the readers’ representative, just as long as the reporter doesn’t use the exact words “the waiver caused the increase.”

            The readers’ representative continues:

That same article also quotes an advocate for abused and neglected children who questions a link between the waiver and the increase in deaths. That’s clearly giving voice to both sides of the issue.

             Actually, the article doesn’t do that.  The readers’ representative is talking about these two paragraphs:

Carole Shauffer, executive director of the San Francisco-based Youth Law Center and one of the state's leading advocates for abused or neglected children, said she was hesitant to connect the waiver with the rise in child fatalities because she worried that too little information is available.

"What analysis has been done by the department?" she asked. "Have they really looked at this? Have they looked at the experience level of the social workers who handled these cases? If they are ignoring this type of analysis, they are foolish."

            One of the few things Therolf has gotten right in all this is that Carole Shauffer is, indeed, “one of the state's leading advocates for abused or neglected children” and her comment reflects this.  But she is not psychic.  She could not be expected to definitively comment on a waiver evaluation she hadn’t read.  She had to depend on whatever Therolf told her about the evaluation.

            And why in the world would even the view of one of the state’s best child advocates be a substitute, as opposed to a supplement, to the views, in full and in context, of the evaluation author himself?

            So the readers representative’s version of  “both sides” is  “yes” and “we don’t know.”  The side that says no, there is no relationship  is entirely absent.  So is the side that says newer data call into question whether there has been such an increase.  So is the side that points out that, even with the alleged increase, the rate of reabuse is lower than it was in 2002, well before the waiver.  So is the side that could have presented more likely explanations for any increase, if there is one, etc. etc.  And, of course, there is no mention of the fact that the evaluation itself says there is no evidence of cause and effect.

           In other words, it’s the Fox News version of “fair and balanced.”

           I followed up by asking the readers’ representative if she also had no problems with the questions about accuracy raised in Daniel Heimpel’s column for The Huffington Post.  She did not reply.  Perhaps she was too busy working on things like her Nov. 29 column.  The one headlined: “Readers respond to demise of Bridge column.”