San Diego reporters make the grade

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San Diego reporters make the grade

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun | Flickr

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun | Flickr

Roger H. Goun

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun | Flickr

Roger H. Goun

Roger H. Goun

Photo courtesy of Roger H. Goun | Flickr

Michele Leivas, Editor

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 Members of the local media once again found themselves in the unique position of being in the spotlight instead of under it last Thursday evening for the San Diego chapter of Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) annual “Grade the Media” event.

Moderated by Dr. Dean Nelson, founder and director of Point Loma Nazarene University’s journalism department, this event invited a panel of individuals who found themselves under sharp media scrutiny throughout the previous year to come in and share their experience with the press, ultimately giving the media a letter grade for its reporting, professionalism and overall interactions with the panelists.

In his opening comments, Nelson said, “Report Card on [the media] is one of the healthiest things we do in the field of journalism…It’s a marvelous, healthy thing.”

This year the panel consisted of:

Debbie Ziegler, mother of 29-year-old Brittany Maynard, a California native who became a death-with-dignity advocate after being diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. In 2014, Maynard moved to Oregon to take advantage of its Death With Dignity Law. The attention Maynard brought to her cause spurred swift and immediate action by state legislatures throughout the country. On June 9, California residents with terminal illnesses will have the legal right to make the same choice Maynard did. “You may not use the law,” Ziegler said, “but it will be there.”

In preparation for this event, Ziegler said, she spent time going over the coverage (local, national and international) to evaluate reporters’ interactions with her and her family. In conclusion, Ziegler said, she felt that San Diego reporters outperformed national news organizations.

San Diego reporters “contacted me directly” and as a result, she felt that “interviews were more open and candid.” She added that some reporters “had a bigger heart” than others, identifying Union-Tribune reporter Logan Jenkins by name.

“If he were here, I’d hug his neck,” she said.

Overall, Ziegler gave local media a B+; media at large, however, she gave only a D: “The compassion was not always there,” she said.

Hanif Mohebi, executive director of the San Diego chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations. “The Muslim-American community is under the spotlight,” Mohebi said. “Everyone considers themselves an expert, including [Republican presidential candidates Donald] Trump and [Ted] Cruz.” Mohebi explained the Muslim-American community does “not know how to deal with this” kind of scrutiny. “I do this as a profession,” he said. “I make sure our voices are heard.”

 Mohebi added that the “reporters [he] works with on a daily basis are amazing people.”

Fear and misinformation have continued to drive a wedge between the Muslim-American communities and their neighbors.

“Muslim-Americans are mainly portrayed negatively by the media,” Mohebi said, which perpetuates the cycle. The agenda, says Mohebi, is set by the national news coverage and the local media piggybacks onto it. “In some cases, we do have [to educate] the reporter.”

Brandon Duncan, aka Tiny Doo, a rapper who was brought up on charges of criminal conspiracy after the release of his album “No Safety.” Duncan faced a prison sentence of 25 years to life before the charges against him were eventually dropped.

Initially, Duncan said coverage of his case was “one-sided.”

“I was being painted as a gang member who participated in all these shootings that I knew nothing about,” he said.

Once he was able to speak to the media himself, however, Duncan said his story was covered “quite well….[He] would give the media an A.”

San Diego County Supervisor Dave Roberts, who faced lawsuits spurred by allegations made by former members of his staff. The events were followed closely by the local media, although Roberts insists “if [he] was a registered Republican or if [he] was straight, then [he thought] this story would have never happened.”

According to Roberts, the media failed to do its job properly, adding that journalists “reported on what they read” from other outlets. He cited a phenomenon he dubbed “Filner Mania,” suggesting local media wanted another scandal similar to the one surrounding San Diego ex-mayor Bob Filner, which they were unable to get from the circumstances surrounding him.

“San Diego loves to eat its own,” he said.

Nelson asked panelists what advice they had for people who found themselves in the media spotlight. Duncan had a simple statement that was met with laughter and a round of applause from everyone in the room:

“You don’t have to answer every question they ask.”

Mohebi expanded on that and added, “Have your talking points and that’s it.”

San Diego Union-Tribune reader outreach and letters editor Andrew Kleske told panelists he senses a “palpable fear” from many of his readers and asked how and if that fear impacts how the panelists “present [their] message” to the public.

Duncan said it is a “First Amendment issue” for him: “I should be able to say wht I want to say in my music the way Johnny Cash said what he wanted to say in his music.”

Ziegler began by saying that while she may not be fearless, her daughter “damn near was and she set an example for [Ziegler] to follow.” Regarding First Amendment issues, she said, “I think we need to say, ‘No, we will not be quiet.'”

While “Grade the Media” was recorded and aired on local stations in the past, SPJ opted against it this year. Instead, the event was live-tweeted using the hashtag #sdgtm, providing followers an instant play-by-play as the discussion unfolded.