This week, we dedicate several pages to the high-profile issue of sex offenders and the dominant local paper's coverage of it. Kelly Davis reports on efforts to reform policy, Dave Maass profiles new San Diego Union-Tribune editor Jeff Light and this editorial critiques the U-T's handling of the story of John Gardner, the ex-con accused of murdering Chelsea King and linked to the murder of Amber Dubois. Let's get right to it:
• In a March 21 story, the U-T used one-month snapshots when reporting an 11-year decline in the number of parolees being sent back to prison for rule violations. The error didn't change the trajectory of the numbers, but it was an error nonetheless, and errors in data analysis could lead reporters down the wrong path. The U-T corrected the error when CityBeat pointed it out.
• In a March 28 story, the U-T quoted Marc Klaas, a well-known advocate for stricter sex-offender laws, as saying he was told by unnamed Department of Mental Health (DMH) employees about a document that showed that, on two occasions, DMH evaluators disagreed with prison psychiatrists who recommended that Gardner be committed to a state hospital because he was too dangerous for parole.
Neither the U-T nor Klaas saw the alleged document, and the people who say they did are unidentifiable. Meanwhile, Klaas is an activist whose organization—and he takes a salary—benefits from such criticism of how sex offenders are handled.
U-T editors say Klaas made his assertion on his website and that it was too newsworthy to ignore. CityBeat would not have published the claim—there are too many points in third-hand accounts at which the information can be misinterpreted. The U-T could have included a comment from someone urging caution when accepting third-hand accounts; instead, the paper allowed Klaas to make repeated comments such as “And Chelsea would have been alive today” if DMH had agreed with prison psychiatrists.
U-T editor Jeff Light told CityBeat he believes Klaas is right. Perhaps government editor Ricky Young also believes it; after telling CityBeat on Twitter that readers were given sufficient information about the claim's origin to decide for themselves, Young stated as fact on KPBS last Friday that DMH had disagreed twice on hospitalizing Gardner, without telling listeners that it was an activist's third-hand claim.
Meanwhile, DMH spokesperson Nancy Kincaid and Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) spokesperson Gordon Hinkle told CityBeat that the process for hospitalizing mentally disordered offenders doesn't even allow for DMH to weigh in a second time; if DMH disagrees once, it goes back to CDCR and stays there.
• A March 31 story about the declining percentage of sex-offender cases being forwarded for more intensive review for possible hospitalization came under the (online) headline “More mentally ill sex offenders freed on parole.” That claim was not supported by any information in the story, and after CityBeat pointed that out, the U-T issued a correction (yet didn't fix the online headline until April 5, when, again, CityBeat pointed it out).
The story itself was fixated on the dropping percentage of cases being forwarded for further review and seemed convinced that this is a problem. But Jessica's Law dramatically lowered the threshold for initial review, so it stands to reason that the process would be flooded with many more cases of people who don't qualify for hospitalization.
• An April 4 story expanded on the March 31 report by saying that the number of hospital commitments between 2007 and 2009 (59) were down from the period between 2004 and 2006 (71). Kincaid told CityBeat that it can take years for the commitment process to unfold, and the lag time makes interpreting the more recent statistics problematic if what you're trying to do is come to a conclusion about the post-Jessica's Law (2007) reality. Her warnings about interpreting numbers have not been published. Meanwhile, the story gives significant weight to criticisms from unnamed contract evaluators working for DMH, but the story waits until the very end to say these evaluators have a financial conflict of interest. In fact, the U-T has given short shrift to an underlying legal battle over money between the evaluators and the department that would provide greater context to the coverage.
The U-T has a new editor trying to halt a downward spiral of circulation, revenue and payroll. The paper appears to be attempting to make a major, daily splash with coverage of an emotionally charged—and easily misunderstood—matter of public interest, and its reporters are homing in on the corrections and mental health departments as bogeymen cutting corners amid a state budget crisis and endangering the public.
We respect the U-T's zeal to examine the system and identify flaws, but the paper needs to take more time and be more careful with data-based stories and seek broader context from a more diverse array of sources.
Politicians seeking to effect change in policy take their cues from the daily paper of record and from public outrage generated in part by the paper's reporting. The U-T's editorial crusade against the evils of sex offenders is dubbed “A Call to Action.” Ours might as well be named “A Call for Restraint.”
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