The Dangers Of Poor Journalism


One of the reasons this blog was started was because the reporting of local government activity left a lot to be desired.  Key facts were often omitted, and some “facts” that were reported ended up being just plain wrong.

Although the local papers have raised their games in the past year or so, they are still not consistently accurate and comprehensive; and every so often they lapse back into their bad old ways, leaving the public dangerously uninformed, under-informed, or misinformed – as was the case with last week’s Park Ridge Journal account of the PADS homeless shelter discussion at last Monday night’s City Council meeting. 

Not surprisingly, the Journal reporter wasn’t Craig Adams who, despite being relatively new to the City Hall beat, has shown an increasing grasp of how City government “works” (or doesn’t), and the ability to write about it in an accurate and understandable way.  Instead, the Journal reporter last week was old reliable Dwight Esau – whose reporting on local government often seem to wobble precariously between fact and fiction. 

Esau has always been a cheerleader for those public officials whose guiding principles are secrecy and the desire to tax, borrow and spend away the taxpayers’ money.  So it comes as no surprise to find out that Esau heartily recommended/endorsed Schuenke for the $93,000/year position of City Administrator for Delafield, Wisconsin, after Schuenke took a lucrative early retirement from his highly-paid position as Park Ridge City Manager – shortly before the discovery of a $1.7 million deficit in the City’s 2007-2008 operations which apparently resulted, in large part, from Schuenke’s making up revenue numbers just to get the budget to balance.

Esau called Schuenke “one of the best” administrators Esau has dealt with in 25-30 years of covering municipal government in Cook County,, which not only calls Esau’s judgment and reporting skills into question but also makes us wonder about how many other neighboring municipalities are also mismanaged. 

Maybe that’s why it’s perversely entertaining to hear that Schuenke has already gotten sideways with the president of Delafield’s Common Council because of Schuenke’s attempt to tack an additional half-million dollars of debt onto a $12.4 bond issue.  

And guess what?  Schuenke, Delafield’s mayor and other city officials “have been meeting behind closed doors with contractors and architects for the past several weeks” even though the mayor refuses to post public notice of the meetings or allow the media to attend, claiming that those meetings aren’t subject to Wisconsin’s open-meetings law.  Sound familiar, folks?

Set against that backdrop, therefore, we thought it might be instructive to “mark up” Esau’s account of Monday night’s proceedings to identify his errors and reveal how insidious such errors can be to a trusting reader’s understanding of what exactly his/her local government is doing.


PADS In Public Works?


Journal & Topics Reporter

After months of debate about putting a homeless shelter in a Park Ridge church, plans now call for locating it in the city’s public works center.  [What “plans”?  Frimark proposed the Public Works Service Center, but the Council did not vote on it or even really discuss the specifics of its use as a homeless shelter.]

The informal and tentative decision [What “decision” is Esau talking about?  And what kind of a governmental “decision” is “informal” and “tentative”?] came after midnight Monday, Oct. 20, after nearly five hours of contentious and confusing debate at a city council meeting held in the auditorium of Washington School.

More than 60 residents [From our experience, anything that exceeds fingers and toes is beyond Esau’s mathematical prowess.  We counted 97 people in the audience at 8:00 p.m., and we think we probably missed several more that had adjourned to the hallway or outside for a smoke] attended the meeting which took the form of the latest of a series of public hearings on whether a homeless shelter should be allowed in the city, and, if so, where it could be located, and under what conditions.

Weary aldermen informally expressed support for the idea of a shelter in the public works service center at 400 Busse Highway. They also authorized Mayor Howard Frimark to negotiate a contractual agreement for a shelter with the Park Ridge Ministerial Association and the PADS (Public Action t o Deliver Shelter), a social service agency serving homeless persons. The contract would have to be approved by aldermen. [The Council didn’t “authorize” Frimark to negotiate because, according to the City Attorney, Frimark doesn’t need Council authorization to negotiate anything on which the Council has a final say.]

Frimark told the council that the PRMA and PADS have both expressed a general willingness to enter into a contractual arrangement with the city for a shelter on city property.

“PADS told me they didn’t want to be a co-applicant for a shelter on private property, but they are willing to contract with the city for one,” Frimark said. 

The mayor surprised aldermen and others involved in this project by proposing the center as a location instead of St. Paul of the Cross Church, a site the PRMA suggested earlier. [No, Dwight, Frimark surprised nobody about the Public Works Service Center as the shelter location because he had issued a press release on it last Thursday!  He did “surprise” people (including the aldermen), however, when he announced that he had been talking to PADS Inc. and the PRMA about a contract arrangement rather than PADS being a co-applicant for the special use permit that will likely be needed for the shelter.]

“This public works site is accessible by public transportation, has equipment needed to operate such a facility, and could be open from October to April, as proposed by Ministerial Association,” Frimark said. “The association unanimously agrees with this recommendation,” he added.

A parade of residents almost unanimously supported the public works center location idea, and continued to criticize the council for considering the church site, where it would be close to a school, which is located very close to the church site. [At least half of the residents who spoke Monday night did not even mention the Public Works center but were discussing other specifics of the zoning ordinance text amendment, including the 500-foot restriction around schools.]

As they did in several previous hearings, residents expressed concerns about crime, health issues, and the potential danger of a shelter to children.

The council also approved, on first reading, two measures designed to set up a framework of regulation and supervision of shelters, wherever they are located and whoever operates them. Aldermen did so only after taking several hours to amend them extensively. [By our count, no more than 20% of either measure was amended, so Esau’s use of the term “amend them extensively” appears just plain wrong.]

One is a text amendment to the city’s zoning code that would permit shelters as special uses in several zoning districts in the city, and describes restrictions governing how and when they would be operated. This was approved by a 6-1 vote, with Ald. David Schmidt (1st) voting no.

Also approved, unanimously, on first reading was a licensing measure.

The measures are expected to be approved at the council’s next meeting on Oct. 29. [“Expected” by whom?]  A key and controversial provision in the ordinance [Why no mention that the “ordinance” was recommended by a 7-2 vote of the City’s Planning & Zoning Commission?] says that a shelter shall not be located within 500 feet of a child daycare, nursery school, or grammar school, but also cannot be open within 60 minutes of the operation of any other activities at the facility where the shelter is located. [Why no mention that this 60-minutes provision was a City Council-proposed amendment to the P&Z’s recommended language?]

Officials said that all of the provisions of the ordinance and the licensing requirements would be included in any contract for a shelter.

11 comments so far

Holy @#$%! Thank you SO much for linking to those newspaper articles from Wisconsin. I had no idea that a local reporter “endorsed” Schuenke for anything. Not only does this raise questions about the reporter’s character judgment, it seems to be a major ethical issue. Since when do reporters voice an opinion about anything? OK — there is a lot of talk right now about media bias. This case, however, is incontrovertible. Shouldn’t the ombudsman at Esau’s newspaper look into this?

“Since when do reporters voice an opinion about anything?” This quote absolutely made my day! It seems to me that the public in general has very little problem with a reporter voicing an opinion about enything – so long as they agree with the opinion.

Here are some helpful tips for Craig Adams.

The Society of Professional Journalists

Seek Truth and Report It
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
— Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.
— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

Minimize Harm
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Act Independently
Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

Be Accountable
Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists should:

— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
— Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.


Valuable info! Thanks for posting it here.

Should it be presumed that you addressed this to Mr. Adams because the journalist featured in today’s Watchdog post, along with the journalist for the Herald-Advocate, are both lost causes?


It is valuable info! “Is there a Society of Professional Aldermen – Code of Ethics” floating around by chance?

anon 4:56:

First, I would strongly urge you to forward your e-mail to virtually every person who works at MSNBC and FOX “news”.

Second, I think there are some valuable guidelines in the code you posted that might be of value on the blogs – even though blogs may not be quantified as journalism per se.

As with any kind of code or law, including a cities right to regulate a church, it often depends on who is interpreting the code.

A solid point about the residents being misinformed – those who are not attending the meetings themselves are not getting a full understanding of the issues really facing the community. People are trusting the media source and trustng their council. Everyone has to tell 10 people what’s going on so they get the real story – so many rumors, gossips, untruths.. .People don’t know what is really going on … lot’s of “I heard…” and 90% of those I reply to are wrong. PR RESIDENTS WAKE UP!

Let’s see if the cheeseheads in Delafield can figure out what a “superstar” – NOT! – Schuenke is any quicker than we could. At least they don’t have Dwight Esau writing a bunch of worthless bilge in their local newspaper week after week.

Bring back Craig Adams! Or Andrew Schneider.

Esau should stick with sports.

I was at the P&Z meeting last night and hardly anyone was there.

Also about those being misinformed I would also think by now that most would realize that more than likely most papers aren’t neccesarly reliable.

Case in point, Last weeks Herlad-Advocate letters to the editor only had 2 letters supporting it and 0 against it.

Think any fool could figure out they must have other letters going against it.

Too much advertising in that paper.


Your comment about people realizing papers may not be reliable is a nice thought but, unfortunately, I see little evidence that the population at large understands this.

We live in a world where multi-million dollar careers and billion dollar companies are built on covering one side of a given issue.

Ask most people to represent the economic plans of either candidate for president and the odds are they will be very wrong because they were informed by a media outlet that has an agenda – “he ignores the middle class”, no, “he is a socialist”. It has reached a point where most news stories serve as a starting point for research and searching for the facts, which most people don’t do (I am guilty of this myself at times).

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