An exchange this week between Timberjay Managing Editor Marshall Helmberger and St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson provides an excellent occasion to highlight how we go about gathering the news, and the misperceptions that seem to be motivating attitudes about the accuracy of much of the media.
We reported this week on a controversial decision of the St. Louis County Planning Commission (see page 1), which included criticisms of Mr. Nelson for his decision to vote on the issue, despite having represented the applicant, Rodney Jola, at a hearing in April on the same subject.
As part of our news gathering, we routinely rely on multiple sources, particularly in situations where our reporters are not able to attend a particular event or meeting. In the case of the planning commission story, we made contact with seven different sources, including county and township officials as well as concerned local residents, and reviewed letters and staff reports related to the case. A story such as this takes several hours to research, write, and edit and through it all our number one goal is provide as accurate a report as possible, based on the information we have available and the time constraints of a weekly deadline.
Since our story included criticism of Mr. Nelson’s decision to vote on the Jola application, we offered Mr. Nelson the opportunity to respond. That’s a standard of journalistic ethics.
Here is the email, verbatim, which Mr. Helmberger sent to Mr. Nelson:
I want to give you the opportunity to respond to criticism regarding your decision to vote last Thursday on the Jola application at the planning commission. Given that you had served as advocate for Mr. Jola at the meeting in April, it is being suggested by some people from Greenwood that it was improper for you to vote on the issue at last week’s meeting. You apparently did recuse yourself from voting in April. Do you have any comment on the issue?
Thanks in advance for any help you can offer.”
Mr. Nelson responded:
“I love when people make up stories, when you become a reporter they call it news. No fact checking necessary. Commissioner Nelson.”
Unfortunately, Mr. Nelson’s dodge has become all too common among politicians in recent years. When confronted, or simply asked to comment, on a questionable action, some politicians choose to simply attack the media.
Mr. Nelson’s response not only reflects a degree of arrogance, it reflects an apparent misunderstanding of the role of the media, and how it goes about its business.
Mr. Nelson provided no suggestion in his response about what, if anything, in our story or questions related to it, was made up or inaccurate. Had he done so, it might well have influenced our reporting on the subject. That’s why we ask questions of multiple sources, since each generally has a somewhat different perspective. By hearing from as many sources as possible we are able to provide a more comprehensive and accurate story.
And the irony of Mr. Nelson’s conclusion is striking. When we contact potential sources, such as Mr. Nelson, and review relevant documents, we are engaged in exactly what he accuses us of ignoring, i.e. fact checking.
If we weren’t interested in providing as complete and balanced a story as possible, we wouldn’t have bothered to contact Mr. Nelson, who routinely responds to our occasional inquiries with little more than peevish invective.
Mr. Nelson certainly has a right to his opinions about the media, but his constituents also have a right to see his actions held up to scrutiny, and that’s a job for which newspapers, above all other media, are known. We take the job of reporting the news seriously and we contact dozens of sources in a typical week to provide the most accurate and complete news coverage possible. Rather than attacking such efforts, Mr. Nelson might want to embrace them as an opportunity for accountability. Who knows, it might even do him some good.