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Editorial: Why we published SEIU Local 1000 story

On June 10, The Sacto Politico published a fascinating and informative Q&A interview with in-coming SEIU Local 1000 President Richard Louis Brown. But that evening the Sacramento Bee published an explosive story featuring formal claims of unethical election conduct and vote buying against Brown, as well as election irregularities by Local 1000. But just as surprising, the article buried Brown’s response far down in the article, starting in the 16th paragraph.

Other aspects of the article were also unusual. So out of a commitment to the public interest prompted this publication to publish our own piece outside our normal twice-a-month publishing schedule. The goal was to more deeply explore the issue, give Brown a fair hearing and allow other parties opportunity to share their perspectives. This included letting Brown share his harassment charges that, if true, should be just as concerning to leadership and members of Local 1000 as the protest charges filed against Brown and others.

In the interest of full disclosure, let me note for about one year I was a dues-paying member of SEIU Local 1000. But I did not have a vote in the recent leadership election, and to be frank, I wasn’t even aware of the highly contested election until I read about its conclusion in the Bee.

As a former daily newspaper reporter, I also understand the challenges of writing and editing against a daily deadline. But I take seriously being a faithful steward of my profession, and several aspects of the Sacramento Bee’s June 10 immediately struck me as not following proper journalistic standards.

This began with the article’s headline: “California union leaders want SEIU Local 1000 election result tossed, alleging irregularities.” As written, many might naturally think state union leaders outside Local 1000 were disputing the election. But this is not the case. The “state union leaders” were from within the local itself. So why not say “SEIU Local 1000 leaders allege election irregularities, want their own election results tossed”? I imagine the misleading nature of the original headline was not intentional and a product of perhaps deadline sloppiness.

But this is followed in the lead paragraph with Brown being described as “controversial.” Generally, news reporters – versus feature reporters – chose adjectives to describe subjects carefully and sparingly. We prefer to quote others describing another news figure’s character. Clearly the word “controversial” is highly subjective, but that’s not the problem here. Brown clearly ran a highly brash campaign to fundamentally change many ways his union operates and can be fairly called “controversial.”

However, the article describes Brown alone as “controversial” and did so from the outset. This was not fair within the context of this story. Many individuals and aspects of the Local 1000’s post-election infight can be fairly characterized as controversial. There are the official protests lodged against the Union for changing voter eligibility rules very late in the process. There is President Yvonne Walker and the union’s calling an emergency meeting after Brown’s election to give $1 million to help fight Gov. Gavin Newsom’s recall. This came after Brown ran and won specifically promising to get the union out of such donations.

Then there is Walker avoiding any comment and having the power to name members of an election review committee that could rule to redo an election she lost and sanction or disqualify the candidate who beat her.

Because controversy is everywhere in this story, it seemed highly unfair for the Bee to call out Brown – and Brown alone – as controversial.

And the height of unfairness toward Brown was to characterize him in this way, then note in the fourth paragraph he is accused of attempted vote buying, but then not give him a chance to refute this and other accusations until deep down in the 16th paragraph. Most journalists know that readership drops off from a story the longer it goes. That is partly why news reporters follow what’s called the inverted-pyramid style of writing to pack as much of the most important information as high as possible.

This is especially the case with accusations against any news figure’s character. Journalism professionals know many readers would not know Brown strongly disputes the charges against him unless they read past the halfway point of the 30-paragraph article. This not only did a great disservice to Brown, but also to readers who are left wondering what Brown had to say about all this.

This also broke another journalistic convention. If a reporter is able to reach the subject of an explosive accusation like vote-buying, reporters and their editors are news- and duty-bound to feature that response high up. This usually means directly quoting that person’s response in the third or fourth paragraph. And deadline pressure is generally not a good excuse here because a response can be easily dropped high into a story as into the lower half.

For all these reasons, The Sacto Politico felt it only fair to give Brown a chance to more extensively share his side of the story. Following solid journalistic norms, I dutifully verified his claim of the false 911 call to his home and tried to give other parties in this story a chance to respond to Brown’s. Fellow presidential candidate Miguel Cordova did respond, and other sources – including the Local 1000 itself – did not respond to this offer.

There are still loose strings in this story to follow. This includes President Walker’s “controversial” conflict of interest in appointing the members to the election review committee that could lead to her remaining in office and how that committee goes about that job.

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