Uncovering ‘a mess’ at Colorado’s state mental hospital


Some recent reporting by The Pueblo Chieftain in southern Colorado got the attention of local officials this month with a series of stories that chronicled problems plaguing the state mental hospital.

In early June, reporter Peter Roper got a tip about the sudden closure of a 20-bed addiction and mental illness program at the Colorado Mental Health Institute in Pueblo, and he broke the news. He didn’t know much about the program, but his paper has reported heavily on the local heroin epidemic, so an addiction program’s abrupt and quiet closing seemed worth a look. He was told hospital staff were unavailable for interviews and was given a statement. But, “I just kept talking to unhappy staff who called with more details,” he told me.

Roper’s coverage led local lawmakers to question the hospital about its operations. He then reported how the hospital was in jeopardy of losing federal Medicare benefits because of severe staff shortages. Lawmakers accused the hospital of a “breakdown” with staff, and Roper reported how some nurses were quitting because of mandatory overtime. “That was all new to our local state lawmakers who advocate for the hospital in the legislature,” Roper says. “They weren’t happy to learn DHS was sitting on that information and might not have ever told them, except The Chieftain pressed for an explanation and got them asking questions as well.”About a week after the news broke, the hospital’s superintendent resigned. The paper lauded its reporter’s news coverage in an editorial under the headline “Chieftain uncovers a mess at the state hospital in Pueblo.” On June 15 alone, Roper had three separate bylined stories about the hospital including one about potential fixes. Following two weeks of sustained coverage, Roper’s latest story is about how officials at the Colorado Mental Health Institute are telling lawmakers they have “plugged the holes”— for now.

“As I told one old colleague who was congratulating me on my coverage,” Roper told me, “I don’t feel like I did much except keep calling DHS and asking questions that were clearly framed by long conversations I was having with unhappy staff. It was sort of like knocking on a door and having the entire wall fall in.”

So, hey, here’s to knocking!

Highlights from a public radio panel in Denver on journalistic ethics

Should I share this thing on Facebook? Should we call the president a “liar?” Should journalists be licensed? When should we use anonymous sources?

These were among the issues Ryan Warner of Colorado Public Radio recently discussed during a panel in Denver on journalistic ethics where audience members were invited to quiz a handful of CPR and NPR journalists about how they do their work. Those pros were NPR’s Code Switch reporter Adrian Florido, CPR news VP Kelley Griffin, NPR standards and practices editor Mark Memmott, and CPR board member Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute. “There is something going on with what people think of the media these days,” Warner said at the outset of a recording of the live event. I particularly enjoyed a lightening round segment when Warner posed an ethical question (Example: A freelancer pitches a story to an editor about a new college chancellor, but his wife is a professor at the college) where the audience raised their hands for ‘yes’ or ‘no’ and then panelists gave their own takes while offering real-life examples. Other questions included what journalists can or should post on social media. When asked if journalists should vote the audience overwhelmingly said yes. (Flashback to my story in CJR about reporters voting under a new Colorado election law.)

At one point (36:35 minutes in) Warner asked Memmott whether NPR’s creation of an “urban-rural divide” beat might have been a bit of a mea culpa after Trump’s election. That jumped out at me since I profiled the former Colorado reporter, Kirk Siegler, who currently handles that beat, for CJR. Not exactly, Mermott told Warner— NPR actually created the beat before the election. He also said this: “And actually we regret a little bit calling it with the word ‘divide’ because we don’t necessarily think there’s an urban-rural divide. We’re really looking at the issues that are driving people in urban and rural areas. Yes, there may be some divisions there, but there’s also some just really interesting stories and different ways of looking at things.”

Griffin of CPR also talked about the station’s “Breaking Bread” civic engagement project where they set up a dining room table in the lobby for a series of conversations with six Coloradans from different walks of life to talk politics and, more importantly, listen to each other.

A Colorado University researcher studied ‘fake news,’ and found…

That it’s more impactful than fact-checking. That’s according to a recent study by Chris Vargo, a professor at CU Boulder’s College of Media, Communication and Information, and two other researchers. The study, which examined “the agenda-setting power of fake news and fact-checkers who fight them through a computational look at the online mediascape from 2014 to 2016,” found fake news “has an intricately entwined relationship with online partisan media, both responding and setting its issue agenda,” and while “content from fake news websites is increasing, these sites do not exert excessive power.” Fact-checkers, the authors write, “were not influential in determining the agenda of news media overall, and their influence appears to be declining, illustrating the difficulties fact-checkers face in disseminating their corrections.”

Here’s a salient graf:

In all, this analysis shows that fake news can influence the issue agendas of partisan and emerging news media coverage. While the influence that fake news had on partisan media grew in 2016, the overall influence of fake news on the entire mediascape appears unchanged. This suggests that just as partisan media adopted fake news agendas, other media began to resist. Further research should study the increasing link between partisan media and fake news. One possible explanation for this finding is that partisan media have begun to leverage fake news to bolster and selectively support their own agendas. If this is indeed the case, it is yet another cause for concern regarding the effects of partisan media on a healthy society.

You can read the whole study here.

On Denver’s rapid development boom and a public media HQ

We read a lot about Denver development, but it’s rare it intersects with media for the purposes of this newsletter. But then again it is Denver, and nothing is spared from the threshers of the growth machine. Recently, The Denver Business Journal reported Rocky Mountain Public Media wasn’t granted a certain tax benefit as it raises money to create a new headquarters. The Colorado Economic Development Commission “took the rare step of rejecting [RMPM’s] request to offer enterprise-zone tax credits to people who donate to the planned $30 million fund-raising campaign,” the DBJ reported.

More from the DBJ:

The parent company of Rocky Mountain PBS had hoped to offer credits of 25 percent of a person’s donation as a carrot to people considering support for the Buell Public Media Center, planned for the corner of 21st and Arapahoe streets in Denver. Such tax credits are standard fare for non-profit and government-entity projects seeking private funding in any of the 19 enterprise zones across the state that are meant to spur economic activity in areas of low income or lagging growth.

However, largely because of the number of higher-priced residential units going into the Ballpark neighborhood, the location of the proposed building was removed from an enterprise zone at the start of 2016 when boundaries for all zones were reconsidered. It’s not unusual for non-profit projects near enterprise zones to receive tax-break status still if they can show they will aid the economic activity in nearby zones, but developers must get overt permission from the Colorado Economic Development Commission.

Soooo, high priced development in Denver might have pushed a public media outlet outside a zoning boundary so some donors to its capital campaign won’t get a tax break. If that’s not the most “Denver story” you’ve heard today, I don’t know what is. Rocky Mountain PBS president and CEO Amanda Mountain (yep, real name), however, told me the news isn’t all that significant to the strategic direction of the project. The tax credits would have been capped and would have directly benefited a handful of donors, she said. Here’s what she told supporters in a letter: “As a statewide organization, what’s good for Colorado is good for Rocky Mountain Public Media. We support the Commission’s strategy to provide tax incentives to more and more neighborhoods and projects beyond the Denver Metro area in order to spur economic development in areas that might not otherwise see it.”

Meanwhile, KNDK public radio in Carbondale is re-zoning to boost revenue…

And also to offer more community engagement with live events.

From The Glenwood Springs Post -Independent:

The rezoning will allow the station to use its broadcast learning center, which can hold about 45 people, for events or programs. Dahl and his staff hope to draw band rehearsals, teachers looking for space, community forums or other political engagement events, documentary screenings, band jams, songwriting workshops, local music showcases and more.

“KDNK will always be radio-first, but what it means to be a public broadcasting outlet is evolving, and we want to keep it interesting,” said KDNK station manager and friend-of-this-newsletter Gavin Dahl.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages

The Greeley Tribune fronted an enterprise story called “Shadow Market” about how meth fuels an underground economy that attracts talented perps. The Loveland Reporter-Herald fronted coverage of a local charity raceThe Longmont Times-Call reported how the city could regulate short-term rentingThe Pueblo Chieftain profiled a local woman who kicked an opioid habitThe Grand Junction Daily Sentinel fronted a story about how caseworkers erred prior to a child’s killingThe Steamboat Pilot profiled local caregiversThe Gazette in Colorado Springs reported on neighborhoods that rebuilt five years after the Waldo Canyon FireThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins profiled the county coronerThe Boulder daily Camera reported on the financial penalties incurred by CU officials who failed to report domestic violence against a former assistant football coach. The Durango Herald fronted a story about the abrupt resignation of the city utilities directorThe Denver Post covered the money race in the gubernatorial primaries.

Are auto-play videos driving readers away from local newspaper sites?

This week I clicked on an online story in a local Colorado newspaper and was immediately greeted by the cacophony of an auto-generated video. I recoiled and closed the tab. I didn’t read the story. I can’t recall the headline or even whether I went back and read it later. But I tweeted this: “*Click on local news story, auto-video with annoying music starts to play somewhere on the page, immediately close tab, move on.” To my surprise it quickly racked up a dozen likes, and some substantive dialogue.

And then, perhaps, the most devastating.

This is something that popped up around this time last year when Jim Brady wrote in CJR how local news isn’t dead, “we just need to stop killing it.”

From that piece:

This need for more pageviews and impressions also led to what can only be described as the excruciating user experience of most local news sites. Slow load times? Check. Pop-up ads? Yes sir! Auto-play video? Of course! Forty-page slide shows? Why not? User experience? Sorry, not familiar with that term.

Some newspapers in Colorado still haven’t learned this even as their own editors know— and publicize— that it’s a problem. For the latest on this topic, read how “the ironic subtext” of forthcoming ad blockers “is that the tyranny of autoplay videos and low-quality display ads is one of the few topics that builds broad-based consensus on the internet.”

For this week’s personnel file…

After just shy of a quarter century at KUSA 9 News, Denver’s NBC affiliate, anchor Adele Arakawa, who “ruled the Denver market’s TV ratings,” is leaving on June 30. And sheesh, look at this brutal line from The Denver Post about it: “Her timing is perfect: With local TV news in decline and media generally at a crossroads, Arakawa is getting out on top — while the industry is still recognizable. The era of huge anchor salaries is past. The corporate pressure to focus more on the bottom line and less on idealistic journalism is a given.” That was written by Joanne Ostrow for The Denver Post, who took a buyout from the paper last year.

Photographer Mark Reis, who joined The Gazette in Colorado Springs in 1986, is leaving “to pursue other ambitions.” In an editor’s column about his departure appears this, which I didn’t know: “As the hometown newspaper of the U.S. Olympic Committee, The Gazette is the smallest newspaper credentialed to cover the Olympics.”

*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 Hamza Butt for Creative Commons on Flickr.