Belmont poorly served by Citizen Herald in election coverage

BCH override coverage fell short

How nice that the Belmont Citizen Herald has decided, in the wake of a critical override vote, to put its journalist hat back on and do hard reporting. An article online is now asking for “sources needed for override analysis.” That’s so funny, ’cause it seemed there were no shortage of unnamed sources just dying to talk a week ago, before the vote was taken, and there didn’t seem to be any problem with using their words then. Now that the vote is in the books, looks like its back to AP-standard reporting and folks with opinions are hard to come by. Go figure!

Let’s cut to the chase: I think Belmont’s new online paper, Patch, with editor and longtime Belmontonian Franklin Tucker, did a great job covering the election and the last minute dramatics, explaining the inaccuracies in the messages and doing the good work of getting officials and residents to go on record, explain what was going on and comment. It always helps to have boots on the ground where the story’s happening. The next big job is tracking down who is behind the messages, but I trust Franklin and Patch will be on that task now that the election is over.

Not so the Citizen Herald, whose editor Tony Schinella covered the last minute zigs and zags from his home in the Granite State with  a not-so-subtle libertarian slant. I give the BCH low marks all around for its election coverage, a big contrast to its coverage of the Selectmen and School Committee races which I thought was well planned and comprehensive.
This time around, though, Schinella used a series of stories and editorials to throw mud at the YES effort and showed an unwillingness to do even the basic blocking and tackling that define quality reporting. Quick to repeat unfounded rumors and speculation about the motivations or actions of  the YES effort, the school administration and town unions, he shielded even the most egregious exaggerations of the NO campaign from readers. In an article dated June 12, for example (I’m not even going to link to it) “Belmont Clerk releases push poll text,” Schinella actually did the NO camp a favor by repeating the text of a factually incorrect robocall message charging that override money would go towards raises for town and school employees without bothering to set the record straight. (Fact: raises were contractually mandated and would happen automatically, while override money was being directed to preserving services on both the town and school side.)  Instead, Schinella pivoted immediately in the spotlight to (unfounded and unsourced) rumors that the YES campaign was targeting Town Meeting members:
“Political observers in Belmont suspect that override proponents are preparing to target Town Meeting members who did not sign pro-override promotional materials in the annual town election in 2011, meaning any fallout from Monday’s results could reverberate through town politics for at least another nine months.”
You don’t need to go to Journalism school to know that crediting speculative or downright inflammatory comments and rumors to unnamed “sources,” and then not trying to verify those claims isn’t kosher. Of course, mainstream and credible news outlets have been wrestling with the anonymous sourcing issue for a long time. The New York Times notoriously got burned by rogue reporter Jayson Blair, who often fabricated sources, then granted those fake people the courtesy of anonymity in his article. In the wake of that debacle, the Times adopted stricter policies around anonymous sources — they should be the exception rather than the rule and, when anonymity was granted to a source, readers must be told why.
When I called Tony on this – noting that he credited an incendiary comment to an unnammed “political observer” without bothering to say why that source needed anonymity (in my experience, its rare for political pundits  to want anonymity), he said the quotes were from real people – trust him! Now it seems like those “political observers” have clammed up? As to bias in the reporting, Tony explained that:
“Since we no longer have a Belmont blog, I occassionally write things on the site that would otherwise be blog posts. We’re putting everything on the site that would otherwise be a blog post. The only blog we now have is the Mitt blog. I’ve done this with foodie stuff, political notes, and other things. That’s what the election notes series basically is.”
So FYI- your factual town paper is now a fact-optional political blog — election coverage, foodie stuff. Its all in there together. Great.
Election day brought another article: “2010 Override: Union official denies public resources used in pro-override outreach effort” which downplayed the erroneous and anonymous robocalls, equating them with a factual and clearly identified automated call that OneBelmont sponsored with Selectman Ralph Jones. In this case, Schinella repeated the rumor that the OneBelmont spots were also unattributed, but made no effort to verify the ‘unattributed Onebelmont call” rumor before going to print with it. He’ll say that he set the record straight eventually…after publishing. No matter, the damage was done.

I think Belmont was poorly served by its main paper and I, for one, will be discontinuing my subscription to the paper . Belmont deserves better.

In the end, I don’t want or need a paper that agrees with me or folks who think like me. I do need a paper that strives to sustain our community by fostering understanding and dialog based on facts, not invective, rumor and cheap political posturing. I need a paper that takes as its primary aim to be fair and balanced in its coverage, and that never sees fit to let its journalistic standards drop in the quest to score a political point or incite controversy. The Citizen Herald failed on all these points in its coverage of the override. Its time for a change.