From the editor: Sidestepping the spin
January 25, 2017
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — The Steamboat Today published a story last week that focused on the city of Steamboat Springs' new public relations strategy, and particularly, the practice of having a public relations manager manufacture quotes for city council members.
Reporter Scott Franz discovered the story through a Google search, which uncovered a quote in a Steamboat Ski Area promotional brochure that was very similar to the wording in a quote that was attributed to Council President Walter Magill.
When pressed, Magill admitted the quote was crafted by the city's new public relations manager Mike Lane, who used to head up Steamboat Ski Area's PR department, and Magill then vowed to speak directly to the press in the future rather than allowing quotes to be written on his behalf.
After discussing the article with the newspaper's Editorial Board, I realized there might be readers and community members who would benefit from understanding why we believed the article was worth writing, and why the Steamboat Pilot & Today has adopted a policy not to publish quotes from city news releases in the newspaper.
To be clear, the Steamboat Pilot & Today understands the role of a public relations manager. We get numerous news releases every day, and we view them as story pitches. We can't report on things we don't know are happening, and news releases are a good way to provide the news team with basic information about an event or achievement that may or may not be newsworthy.
Our problem with the city's new public relations strategy centers on the fact that the city is disseminating false information as if it were fact, and that's especially troubling when it comes to putting words into the mouths of elected officials. This issue becomes even more significant during a time when terms such as "fake news" and "alternative facts" are making headlines.
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This is not a political issue. Journalists are trained to dig up facts and report the truth, and their work is foundational to a participatory democracy. Sometimes, the media misses the mark, but at the grassroots level, our team of reporters at the Steamboat Today works hard every day to get it right and uncover the facts surrounding issues that resonate with our readers.
And this also isn't an issue of picking on the City Council. Instead, it's about the truth — plain and simple. Either someone said the words or they didn't, and the practice of making up a quote, attributing it to a council member and including it in an official city press release promotes the release of false information.
This practice of manufactured quotes and the use of a city spokesman also places an unnecessary barrier between elected officials and the constituents they serve. Steamboat is a small community, and we think residents, as well as reporters, should be able to pick up the phone and communicate directly to council members about issues of importance to them.
It's part of an elected official's job to be accessible to the public and to the press, and no one expects that interaction to be perfectly polished or always "on message." Instead, we want the truth from our government leaders, and we expect honest answers to our questions, not prepared statements or fabricated quotes.
The Steamboat Pilot & Today will continue to cover city government and uncover stories that we believe matter to our readers and our communities. Our journalists will keep digging for the truth, and you can be assured we're getting our information directly from the source and sidestepping the spin.