October 2, 2010

'Watchdog' website puts a new spin on politics

The Internet has blurred the lines in reporting -- breaking some stories, but also some rules.

By Rebekah Metzler rmetzler@mainetoday.com
MaineToday Media State House Writer

AUGUSTA - MaineWatchdog.org, the latest news website for the state, made headlines recently by reporting that U.S. Rep. Chellie Pingree, a Democrat representing Maine's 1st District, had traveled aboard her fiance's private jet. The story left the mainstream media scrambling to catch up, and to report a detail that was absent from the original Watchdog story: that the travel may have broken no laws or even ethics rules, according to the House ethics manual.

The website is part of an emerging network of media outlets around the country sponsored by a North Dakota-based nonprofit, the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, which is led by a former Republican operative.

According to Jason Stverak, the center's president and founder, his group's mission is to inform the public in an era of shrinking resources for traditional media.

"There are fewer and fewer outlets for that type of information, and if we can help a state-based organization or ourselves recruit, train, hire, educate not only professional journalists or citizens, and give them journalistic standards and training to help provide that real information, that's the goal," he said.

It's widely acknowledged across the country that as many newspapers have coped with shrinking revenue, they have made cuts to statehouse bureaus and investigative reporting. That has opened the door for bloggers and citizen journalists to earn credibility by holding governments and officials accountable where traditional media have been silent.

But some critics have accused the Franklin Center, and its array of state-based websites, of purposefully half-reporting stories for a conservative gain.

In the Pingree story, an anonymous source went with information to MaineWatchdog reporter Stephan Burklin, rather than a traditional news outlet.

Burklin went to The Portland Press Herald after he had put together the story, to gauge the paper's interest in it. A reporter who spoke to Burklin said he left copies of some of his research and documentation so the paper would have the resources once the story broke. Burklin and the reporter both said he never offered the paper the story to run.

Burklin then posted the story on MaineWatchdog.org Sept. 23.

Burklin said he did not seek comment from Pingree or her office before posting the story, though the Franklin Center claims its reporters adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics.

"Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing," the code says.

Nor did he seek to find out whether Pingree's travel on the private plane was a violation of any sort, which likely would have made the story less sensational. And he has not posted any updates on the story that include comments from Pingree or statements from the House ethics committee staff.

"I don't really have ownership of the story anymore. I'm a oneman shop right now and I have a couple of other stories and pieces I'm working on right now," Burklin said. "It was moving too fast, there are too many pieces and I didn't feel like I could cover that myself."

According to a story written last spring by Laura McGann in Washington Monthly, Franklin Center Watchdog websites across the country have engaged in a similar pattern of investigative muckraking.

"As often as not, their reporting is thin and missing important context, which occasionally leads to gross distortions," wrote McGann. She detailed several instances in which Watchdog websites broke stories, which after additional phone calls turned out to be misleading or untrue.

"This sort of misleading reporting crops up on Watchdog sites often enough to suggest that, rather than isolated instances of sloppiness, it is part of a broad editorial strategy," wrote McGann, who is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University and a former editor of the Washington Independent, a liberal D.C. news source.

(Continued on page 2)

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