Brent Boyer: Sheriff story missed the mark
March 25, 2011
Steamboat Springs — Last week I used this space to defend the importance of journalism education and how it teaches aspiring reporters and editors to, among other things, "be fair, accurate and accountable; think critically; and display good news judgment."
Today, I am using this same space to take responsibility for a recently published article in which I believe we fell short of those journalistic standards.
In Sunday's Pilot & Today, a front-page article titled "Sheriff works to overhaul agency" presented a one-sided account of the operation of the Routt County Sheriff's Office under former leader Gary Wall versus that of current Sheriff Garrett Wiggins.
There were several problems with the article, including:
■ Unsubstantiated allegations of potentially criminal activity by unnamed Sheriff's Office employees, insinuated to be a result of Wall's lack of oversight. This occurred when we reported that some $400 in money and the contents of a bag containing a white powdery substance were missing from the Sheriff's Office evidence room. We provided no additional information about the nature of that case or when it was filed and investigated.
■ While the story allowed Wiggins and Undersheriff Ray Birch to describe the Sheriff's Office they inherited as having no structure, accountability or procedure, it didn't point out, for example, that Wiggins himself was criticized by an audit of the All Crimes Enforcement Team that he used to command for a lack of proper procedures and controls, including how it oversaw money used in drug buys.
■ The wording of the caption on the front-page photo served to further the attack on Wall's administration. The caption read: "Routt County Sheriff Garrett Wiggins and his Undersheriff Ray Birch say they have been putting in 60- to 70-hour workweeks in order to shore up the office they took charge of Jan. 11." The implication is that Wiggins and Birch inherited a disaster, but the article provides little in the way of specifics about what, if anything, was wrong with the existing operation of the Sheriff's Office.
■ The most glaring issue with the article was our negligence in even attempting to contact Wall, his undersheriff or anyone else to respond to some of the harsh criticisms of his tenure. Without providing Wall a chance to fairly defend his policies and actions as sheriff, the article amounted to a one-sided attack against him.
This newspaper employs a team of talented and hard-working reporters, photographers and editors who are committed to fair and accurate journalism. We failed in that regard with Sunday's story. An article that intended to update the community on the new sheriff's first couple of months in office instead turned into an opportunity for critics of Wall to pile on. Worse yet, it made it through our editing filters and into the newspaper. Wall deserves better from us. Our readers deserve better from us. And we expect better from ourselves.
Brent Boyer is editor of the Steamboat Pilot & Today. He can be reached at 970-871-4221 or bboyer@SteamboatToday.com.