When authorities clammed up about a local judge, a Colorado newspaper turned to unnamed sources

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When authorities clammed up about a local judge, a Colorado newspaper turned to unnamed sources

When a Greeley municipal judge in August was yanked from the bench, shuffled to paid administrative leave, and charged with official misconduct, all the sheriff’s office would say was that Judge Brandilynn Nieto “used her position to have some of her employees go online and make comments that would benefit a local company.” Details? None. Authorities would not tell the local newspaper, The Greeley Tribune, what company was involved, or other particulars of the alleged offense. Greeley is in Weld County, but neighboring Larimer County snatched the case to avoid appearance of conflicts. When Tribune reporter Tommy Simmons asked for more information, the Larimer County District Attorney’s Office declined, the DA spokeswoman didn’t return his calls and the actual DA declined a request for comment.

Simmons on Aug. 29 pointed out to readers how the behavior was out of character:

The office’s decision was unusual because district attorney’s offices and police departments routinely release information about cases even when defendants have scheduled court appearances. Under the Colorado Criminal Justice Records Act, police and prosecutors have the right to refuse to release certain information if disclosure would be “contrary to the public interest.” But in a 2008 Colorado Supreme Court decision, justices wrote the law had a “preference for public disclosure,” and that criminal justice agencies should “redact sparingly” to respect that interest.

About a week later The Tribune editorial board ripped the DA’s “knee-jerk secrecy” and called it “a baffling decision that runs counter to common practice. It smacks of insiders protecting one of their own.” (The judge in question was a former prosecutor in Weld County.) “Engaging in needless knee-jerk secrecy only creates room for rumor and speculation that at best will besmirch all parties involved in the case,” the editorial board concluded. And that makes sense. Who in Greeley wouldn’t want to know the details of why a local judge was being charged and what company she was accused of helping?

In mid-September, the DA dropped the misdemeanor charge and sealed records relating to it. The Tribune, reporting on a court hearing, quoted a prosecutor calling the judge’s conduct “questionable, bordering on unethical,” but also saying she didn’t believe prosecutors could prove a criminal element beyond a reasonable doubt. A judge allowed the charge to be dismissed. But still, no details emerged. (In 2015, Colorado received a ‘D’ grade for judicial accountability in the State Integrity Investigation on which I worked for the Center for Public Integrity.)

Without details from authorities or the judge to further explain a case with a clear public interest to the community about a local person in power, the newspaper turned to anonymous sources. This week, The Greeley Tribune cited two unnamed sources “close to the investigation” who told the paper what the judge allegedly did. According to the paper, the sources said, “the wife of Ron Worley, owner of Ron’s Bail Bonds, 1009 9th St. in Greeley, asked [Judge] Nieto in a Facebook conversation to promote the business on social media. Nieto initially replied that she could not do so because of her position as a judge. Later, though, according to the sources, Nieto sent a reply saying she had convinced one of her clerks to promote the business on social media for her.”

Speaking of The Tribune

The Swift Communications-owned newspaper in northern Colorado got hit with a couple layoffs this week, I’m told: an education reporter and part-time designer/copy editor. An editor didn’t respond to emails about it, and a spokesperson for Swift didn’t return a voicemail. Swift, based in Nevada, owns 14 papers in Colorado includingThe Aspen TimesThe Steamboat PilotThe Craig Daily PressSummit Daily NewsVail Daily, and The Glenwood Springs Post-Independent. It owns some papers in California, Nevada and South Dakota, too, and one in Utah. And it also owns the national Dairy Goat Journal. (I initially wrote “Daily” Goat Journal, which, come on, like you wouldn’t read that.)

CU-Boulder got $2.5 million for an investigative journalism course

A big check to the University of Colorado-Boulder’s journalism department from Bill and Kathy Scripps to fund an endowment for CU News Corp will allow students to “delve into long-form journalism and partner with professional media organizations such as The Denver Post and 9News,” reports The Boulder Daily Camera. “Students in the course report on key Colorado issues, with previous topics including crime, immigration and political fact checking centered on the 2016 election,” reads a CU news release. This year the program has a new partnership with Colorado Public Television “to deliver an hour long, prime-time program of original content for viewers along the Front Range.” Bill and Kathy’s son and daughter recently graduated from CU’s College of Media,
Communication and Information with communications degrees.

The Durango Herald’s 12-step program for community engagement

This week is National Newspaper Week and at least one Colorado newspaper used the occasion to publicize its launch of a yearlong community engagement effort. With an initiative called “Thirsty for Truth,” The Durango Herald is partnering with the Poynter Institutes’s Local News Innovation Program, funded by the Knight Foundation and the Lenfest Institute for Journalism.

Here are the 12 initiatives on which the paper will embark, per editor Amy Maestas:

Creating an editorial advisory board to provide feedback and guidance about our editorials. … Creating news partnerships with local and state public media outlets … Surveying our readers to gauge their advertising and editorial needs. Revamping and expanding our daily newsletter to incorporate more community information that is relevant to our subscribers. Bringing you a new, comprehensive events calendar. Partnering with local organizations for community events, in addition to hosting our own events. The theme of our first upcoming events correspond with the theme of this year’s National Newspaper Week: Real Newspapers … Real News.

Meanwhile, this month the paper is holding two live events about “fake news,” one at the public library and a “fake news trivia night” in partnership with the Colorado Press Association at a local brewery. Maestas recently finished a Knight-Wallace fellowship at the University of Michigan. She says the community engagement ideas party grew out of that and from the paper’s selection along with 21 other U.S. news orgs as part of Poynter’s Local News Innovation Program. Fun fact: Colorado has two papers participating. The Denver Post is the other. A more-fun fact: The Durango Herald is the “smallest-market newsroom in the program.” And one more: This will be the first time in history The Durango Herald has an editorial advisory board.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Longmont Times-Call reported on a new coordinated system in Boulder focused on ending homelessnessThe Greeley Tribune embedded with a Civil War reenactmentThe Loveland Reporter-Herald covered concern about a proposed gravel pitThe Steamboat Pilot fronted a leaf-peeping guideThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel profiled a family’s use of CBD hemp extract for their disabled sonThe Pueblo Chieftain covered the plight of local youthThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins reported how dead trees are a wildfire fire riskThe Boulder Daily Camera fronted a story by its sister paper The Denver Post (also on the front page there) about questions surrounding a local refugee nonprofitThe Gazette reported how social media fueled ‘hysteria’ at the Air Force AcademyThe Durango Herald examined how the city could transition to all-renewable power by 2050.

Colorado journalist Sandra Fish is taking risks

The Boulder-based independent data-focused journalist who is president of the Journalism & Women Symposium has been hitting the conference circuit this year, including NICAR, the Collaborative Journalism Summit, INN Days, IRE, and SRCCON. Still on her schedule is JAWS CAMP and the Agora Engaged Journalism Summit.

“I’m going to so many conferences because I’m taking a new risk, trying to start my own new journalism nonprofit in Colorado,” she writes.

Follow-up file: Whatever happened with that UCCS flyer story?

Flashback to late August when the TV airwaves in Colorado Springs were buzzing with broadcasts about a controversial flyer found at the University of Colorado. The flyer bore the authorship of a Terry Steinawitz, though no student or faculty member with the name exists. The alleged author posted this flyer, called the “Social Justice Collective Weekly,” around campus. It contained over-the-top commentary suggesting four-year universities like UCCS ban veterans for reasons that are so off-the-wall you had to wonder if the flyer wasn’t fake. For instance, part of it read about veterans: “Their socialization into the military culture is that of a white supremacist organization,” and “all veterans have far right-wing ideologies.” A UCCS spokesman did tell the local alt-weekly, “There’s a chance it’s satire meant to slander several groups.” But that didn’t make the coverage on TV and in the local daily. Instead, initial reporting on the flyer took it at face value. One station went straight to getting reactions from veterans, and another said “being that Colorado Springs is such a large military community, this article and publication have been met with a lot [of] backlash.” A third station said “several viewers asked 11 News to look into the origin of the newsletter,” but the station didn’t get far in doing so. Nor did it raise the question about whether the flyer might not have been legit and rather an attempt to stir the pot.

So, now a month later, did anyone ever find out who made the flyer? Yes, says UCCS spokesman Tom Hutton. “Three purported military veterans not associated with UCCS claimed responsibility for a flyer that presented anti-veteran sentiments and ignited emotions locally and across the nation,” he wrote in the college’s official publication for faculty and staff. He said they asked that another flyer be put up at the school explaining why they did it—”as satire and test of the university’s support for the First Amendment,” Hutton said.

From the allegedly legit flyer about the allegedly bullshit

flyer:

“We would like to personally thank UCCS for standing their ground and defending our right to freedom of speech,” the veterans wrote. “We are proud that this school exist in our town, even though we are not students. My two contributors and I are veterans. Please wake up. This non-existent issue has incited rage inside you. Use it on real issues.”

The initial flyer “generated coverage from local traditional media outlets as well from social media sites and websites,” Hutton writes. “More than 100 people called UCCS expressing frustration with the flyer and mistakenly believing its content or that UCCS supported it. Others sent email and thousands took to social media to express their opinions.” I asked Hutton, who likely tracks media coverage about his institution closely, if local media followed up and reported the alleged origin of the flyer and whether it matched the initial scandal-type coverage. Guess what? “Coverage of who was behind the flyer certainly lagged the initial coverage,” he says. “KKTV – which published the initial story – did ‘complete the circle.’ Kudos to them. The other stations in town did not.” And that decision is OK with him, too, he says, because there’s no sense “giving the story more legs than it deserved.” As for of other local media, The Colorado Springs Independent alt-weekly was “the one that pointed out it was likely a hoax,” he said.

I’d quibble with whether the other TV stations should have passed over the new news once someone fessed up to creating a false narrative that led to saturated coverage. But I get that it doesn’t quite short the circuits on the outrage meter and might come off feeling a bit like a mea culpa. So good on KKTV for following up. That was the station that initially reported as part of its coverage how viewers wanted to know “the origin of the newsletter.” Unless, of course, this is another hoax. Hutton doesn’t think it is this time. A senior student affairs staff member talked directly with the self-professed authors when they came to post the last flyer, he says. Since then, he says, there have been no more similar flyers.

‘Next’ did a segment on what media could do better in the wake of another mass shooting

Following the nation’s (latest) deadliest mass shooting— 59 dead, 400-plus injured— at a country music festival in Las Vegas at the hands of a retired accountant with about 20 guns including some outfitted with devices to make them shoot more rounds per minute, “Next with Kyle Clark” on 9News finished its show with a panel about how media handled coverage of the slaughter. The part comes in at 24:42 in this video. And if you want to see some behind-the-scenes footage of how they set it up, jump back to 22:48.

Help support nonprofit journalism in Colorado at this event

This week, for the first time in a decade, the ACLU of Colorado gave a Civil Rights Award to a journalist. That was Susan Greene, editor of The Colorado Independent, where I work. The organization cited her investigatory work on the civil rights beat in Colorado. One story where her reporting had a clear impact was on the case she reported for years regarding Clarence Moses-EL of Denver whose 1987 convictions were overturned in 2015 after he spent 28 years in prison.  Join The Colorado Independent for an evening with Mosel-EL on Oct. 12 at 6 p.m. in Denver and hear the storyfrom the man himself. The event is a fundraiser for our nonprofit newsroom, so buy as many tickets for your friends as you can. A donation of any size buys a ticket— there’s no set price. And if you can’t make it, consider a tax-deductible donation to help us keep doing what we do, because right now any donation you make up to $1,000 will be matched dollar-for-dollar thanks to the generosity of the Knight Foundation, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Democracy Fund. I’m not good at math but that sounds like a deal.

Now for some news on the local media front from CJR’s United States Project

Karen K. Ho wrote about why one broadcaster is opting to hire local reporters over parachute coverage. Sam Ford explained how before Facebook, society columns provided news—and community. Adeshina Emmanuel told of a reporter who went beyond numbers to explore the mental health toll of Chicago violence. Trudy Lieberman wrote how the health-care debate is a ‘wake-up call’ for Medicaid coverage. CJR’s press freedom correspondent Jonathan Peters asked what news outlets should do when a journalist is arrested covering a protest. And I wrote about why a political blogger in South Carolina won’t face jail time after he refused a court order to identify his sources.

Last Thing: Everybody gets 15 minutes. I got 10 questions.

Thanks to the Colorado Press Association’s Cheryl Ghrist for her research and thoughtful questions she asked in this interview for the association’s monthly newsletter.

*This roundup appears a little differently as a published version of a weekly e-mailed newsletter about Colorado local news and media. If you’d like to add your e-mail address for the unabridged versions, please subscribe HERE.

Photo by Anna Gustafsson for Creative Commons in Flickr.

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About the Author

Corey Hutchins

is a journalist in Colorado, and Columbia Journalism Review's Rocky Mountain correspondent for the United States Project. Follow him on Twitter @CoreyHutchins and email him at CoreyHutchins [at] gmail [dot] com.

1 Comment

  1. Larry Braden on said:

    I have clear encoding evidence that Weld County deputy lied under oath in a criminal trial the prosecuting attorney knew about it when I asked my lawyer about it she said they would never do nothing to the deputy

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