By David Gordon, Associate Editor
Chippewa Valley Post
Our current lead story (http://cvpost.org/12734-2/), by Dee J. Hall at the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ), raised several practical and ethical concerns that had to be satisfied before we decided to publish it. In the interest of transparency, here’s a brief look at what went into that decision.
The CVPost is on the WCIJ distribution list, and we received this story at 8:45 a.m. Friday (Dec. 18). It reported that two former members of Gov. Scott Walker’s cabinet were charging that Mike Huebsch, then the governor’s top aide, had told the cabinet in 2011 to avoid using state Email or phone systems to transmit anything of importance to him. Clearly, if true, that’s something the public needs to know about the way its state government is operating.
An immediate question was whether this was this really an appropriate story for the CVPost to use, since its focus was on state government rather than being local.
This question needed a pair of answers – the first was that the CVPost may be locally oriented but the Chippewa Valley is affected by what goes on in state government and those of us who live here could well be affected adversely if government business is conducted out of public view.
The second answer took longer, because it centered on whether the mainstream media here were going to pick up the story. Our approach from the start has been that we don’t want to duplicate what those media outlets are providing, and that argued against rushing to post the story.
So did the fact that, by late afternoon on Friday, the Associated Press had not moved the story for its clients. That was at least a minor red flag but one which came down as the story got picked up elsewhere. By Friday evening, though, it still hadn’t been mentioned by Chippewa Valley media in print, on-air or on websites.
When there was nothing in the paper Saturday morning, it became pretty clear that the CVPost wouldn’t duplicate mainstream media coverage by running the story. There was, however, a second red flag that had to be dealt with.
The two ex-cabinet members quoted in the story had both left their positions less than voluntarily. Quite possibly, they might have an ax to grind with Walker. But even conceding that they might be “disgruntled former employees,” as the governor’s office has suggested, their accounts of what took place basically corroborated each other. That helped overcome concerns on this point, as did Dee Hall’s long-standing reputation for solid investigative journalism.
If there had been only one person making those allegations, we would have held the story (and the WCIJ probably wouldn’t have distributed it, either). But there were two sources for the allegations.
There was a third concern, as well. The story built heavily (though far from exclusively) on prior reporting by the Wisconsin State Journal, including some of Dee Hall’s investigative stories before she left last summer to join the WCIJ.
That was not a huge issue by itself, though in editing the story we removed links to several earlier State Journal stories so as to encourage our readers to assess this account’s validity for themselves. We want them – you — to make that judgment in a context that includes a range of prior stories (where we left the links operating). We don’t want that judgment to be influenced unduly by the presence of overly-frequent links to a single set of sources such as the State Journal and its “Defining ‘transitory’ public records series” – worthy as that series may be.
What was more disturbing in this situation was that the State Journal apparently posted the story well before it was released by the WCIJ. The story arrived in our Email at 8:45 a.m. on Friday. When we checked the State Journal’s website late in the afternoon to see whether/how the paper was playing this story, we found it prominently displayed with a time-stamp that said “17 Hours Ago.”
In an e-mail exchange on Sunday, Andy Hall – WCIJ’s executive director – said the Center “sent the notice of Dee’s story to the media distribution list, including the Wisconsin State Journal, at 8:44 a.m. Friday.” Unless the paper’s website is radically off on its time-stamp, that’s at least eight hours after the State Journal posted it. Asked specifically about that on Sunday, Andy Hall replied by Email: “Hmm, sounds like the State Journal time stamp was off kilter.” Or might there be some sort of unmentioned connection here?
None of that, in the end, diminishes the importance of the story and the investigative work that went into it. It’s an important piece of reporting and the Chippewa Valley deserves to know about it. (For more on that, see below).
It’s also a controversial piece of reporting, with strong denials coming from the governor’s office and from Huebsch. The WCIJ package contained Hiebsch’s 750 word response to the allegations, and its story used three paragraphs to quote from that denial, nine paragraphs from the top. The CVPost went a step further by noting Huebsch’s denial in our headline, and editing the story so it provides a link to the denial in its second paragraph.
That’s always a problem with stories involving charges and counter-charges. We hope our handling of it makes clear from the start that there are two sides to this. . . even if, in today’s world, very few people may believe that.
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Cooperating to inform the public
One final aspect of how this story got published is the cooperation that evolved between the CVPost and WQOW-TV. On Friday afternoon the CVPost contacted Dan Schillinger, newsdirector at WQOW-TV, to ask if he had received the story. That query went to Schillinger because we’ve had a couple of informal discussions to explore whether our two organizations might find ways to cooperate to our mutual benefit, and we had no hesitation letting him know that this story was out there.
As it turned out, he hadn’t seen the story and we sent the WCIJ material to him. For good but different reasons, neither of us was ready to run the story at that point and we left things with the understanding that we’d keep in touch.
On Saturday, Dan Emailed us to say that his station’s morning show had used a report based on the WCIJ story and developed by the capitol reporter at WQOW’s sister station in Madison. Dan added that when he posted that story on the station’s website, he would link it to the full WCIJ report on our website. . . which he did. And the CVPost website contains a similar note at the end of WCIJ story re: the availability of “a further report” on the topic on the WQOW website. (That report is very well done and adds some useful information to the WCIJ story. See http://www.wqow.com/story/30792738/2015/12/19/wkow.)
The bottom line here is that this collaborative effort provided the Chippewa Valley with access to a pair of stories on this topic, rather than one. . . or none. That squares perfectly with the CVPost’s goals of helping to “develop informed and engaged citizens who will strengthen the fabric of an effective democracy” and “to become part of a stronger information infrastructure that serves Chippewa Valley communities.” We were pleased to cooperate with WQOW in pursuit of those goals.
We hope this material gives you some insights into factors behind the inevitable judgments that have to be made in conveying news and information. If you have questions or comments, please send them to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.