Denver police vs. the press on making scanner traffic secret

Your weekly roundup of Colorado local news & media

Photo by jimmy thomas for Creative Commons on Flickr

Colorado has become a flashpoint in a national debate about the extent to which the public and press should be able to hear communication crackle across police scanners.

Dozens of police agencies here are encrypting their radio communications and keeping crime reporters in the dark. “That means journalists and others can’t listen in using a scanner or smartphone app to learn about routine police calls,” wrote my colleague Jonathan Peters, a lawyer and Columbia Journalism Review’s press freedom correspondent, earlier this year. “Law enforcement officials say that’s basically the point. Scanner technology has become more accessible through smartphone apps, and encryption has become easier and less expensive.”

The latest dustup is in Denver, where the police department this month indicated it would ask media outlets to sign an agreement in order to access scanner traffic. The agreement “contains restrictions such as no recording or broadcasting transmissions,” reported KUSA 9News. As of June 12, the station hadn’t signed on. Eric Valadez, the 9News director of content, had this to say about it in the report:

“We respect the important role law enforcement plays in keeping our community safe. We cannot accept an agreement that restricts access to public safety information or limits our ability to report in a transparent manner. 9NEWS remains optimistic we can reach an agreement that balances the concerns of police with our responsibility to serve the public.”

Rival TV station KDVR reported the encryption efforts at Colorado’s largest police agency are creating “controversy.” Denver’s police chief, Paul Pazen, has said encrypting correspondence would protect victim privacy and law enforcement tactics.

The Denver Post’s editorial board waded in, saying if police scanners go quiet, “Coloradans will lose one important tool of transparency and accountability.” The editorial pointed out why scanners have been an important news gathering tool for journalists:

Most Americans probably don’t even realize that it’s occurring, but reporters across the nation doggedly listen to radio communications between first responders, searching for breaking news stories. Reporters listen for the types of emergencies big and small that the public needs to know about and often the public first learns to stay away from a gas leak or to avoid an area with an armed suspect through local media outlets. Reporters learn about fires and shootings, injuries and deaths, arrests and rescues, all by listening to the scanner and then following up with police and fire agencies to get more details of what occurred. Reporters aren’t looking to splash lurid details on social media. News organizations have policies dictating the need to verify facts before reporting them and reporters take that responsibility seriously.

“There must be a way to continue to shine a light on these operations, and we think Denver and Chief Pazen could create a model for the rest of the state to follow,” the board concluded.

“At this time the final agreement to sign has not been distributed to the media outlets yet,” Denver police spokesperson Jay Casillas told me on June 26. “At this time, the radios are not encrypted. There isn’t a date set at this point as to when the agreement will be sent for signing or when the radio transmissions will go encrypted.”

The Colorado Media Project is looking into ways to stabilize local news … that includes taxpayer support

story in Columbia Journalism Review this month about two bills in Congress that offer a “helping hand” to a hurting news industry, led by California Democratic Rep. Mark DeSaulnier, noted a Colorado connection.
From the piece:

Last year, DeSaulnier formed The Working Group on Saving Local News. It includes David Cicilline, of Rhode Island; Diana DeGette and Ed Perlmutter, of Colorado; Jamie Raskin, of Maryland; and Zoe Lofgren, also of California, all Democrats. They have solicited expertise from a variety of media trade associations and publishers to help get their heads around the extent of the challenges outlets face. In April, the group introduced a resolution recognizing the importance of local journalism and hosted a special session on the House floor to highlight the issue, during which several members explained how declines in local news have impacted their districts.

DeGette, who represents the Denver area, lamented how, in a short few years, The Denver Post, has downsized from 250 staffers to less than 100, while other Denver papers had closed outright. In other Colorado counties, she said, no newspaper exists at all. “For the sake of our democracy, we need our local newspapers, we need our local reporters, we need our watchdogs doing what they do best,” DeGette said. “We need to find ways to protect our local news outlets and help them thrive.”

Congress isn’t the only place where conversations about whether government can — somehow, some way — work to support local news.

On the East Coast, a bill in the Bay State’s legislature would “create a special commission to study local journalism in underserved Massachusetts communities,” writes Northeastern journalism professor Dan Kennedy on his blog. “Can government play a role in helping to solve the local news crisis?” Kennedy asks. “Not directly, perhaps. But indirectly, government can shine a light on the issue, call attention to worthy projects that might inspire others, and offer some policy recommendations.” In New Jersey, politicians approved a bill to “create an independent ‘civic information consortium‘, which will have $5m to spend on various types of local news coverage,” The Guardian reported.

Here in our state, the Colorado Media Project is busy gathering research and input about various models to support local news “including taxpayer-supported journalism,” says board member Greg Moore, who spent 14 years as editor of The Denver Post and now works at Deke Digital. (I’ve written in this newsletter already about ideas from library districts to Scientific and Cultural Facilities Districts as potential stabilizing funding sources, and recently, those involved with the Colorado Media Project met to hash out some thoughts on what else might be out there.) The group hopes to put together a report in a couple months that synthesizes some of the best thinking on the subject, not just in the United States but around the world. I asked Moore if this was an idea he would have entertained 20 years ago. “I could have never imagined this day arising,” he said. “It wouldn’t have seemed necessary … but when confronted with the very survival of journalism, I think that you have to be willing to look at a number of things.”

The group of about a dozen, which also included former Rocky Mountain News Editor John Temple, has only had one meeting. It’s a nascent effort, and some involved understand how polarizing it can be to even mention it in some journalistic circles. “Government-run news.” “Losing independence.” “Pravda.” You can imagine the sneers.

The CMP’s Melissa Davis put this latest initiative in context with the rest of what the project is up to this summer, describing it as only a small part. “The funding pie for local journalism is changing radically right before our eyes,” she says. “We need to think as a community about different roles for different sectors. We’re looking at what roles philanthropy can play, what roles local governments might play, and what roles individuals need to play more actively if they care about sustaining journalism.”

Shutting down debate before having a “full, open discussion” about the importance of journalism in a democratic society, that includes the idea of taxpayer support, isn’t constructive, Moore said when I noted inevitable resistance. Then he added this:

“I think the first thing that you have to attack, if I may say so, is sort of the sacrosanct view that the advertising model was free of influence. That’s ridiculous. We were covering the people who paid our salaries, OK? We were covering the people that allowed the enterprise to exist. And to act as though there was no tension in that relationship, that there were no checks and balances in that relationship and that it wasn’t fraught with conflicts, is just silly and uninformed. And so if that’s what the fear is in having the taxpayers take a direct role in funding and preserving journalism, then I think that’s a conversation that can be won.”

Quite the times we’re in, folks.

Nancy Watzman, director for The Colorado Media Project, says the CMP exists to research, experiment and collaborate in order to explore different kinds of solutions. “We need to think outside the box,” she says. “I would hesitate about framing this as ‘taxpayer-funding,’ too,” she added. “But the way to think about this is: Is there a role? And I don’t think we know what that will be. We just want to explore all the various options.” The project is also researching the role of philanthropy and membership when it comes to funding local news.

If you have any ideas for the CMP as they pursue this, shoot them to the project here. Watch this space for what emerges.

‘Governor, will you look into the camera … and say…’

Earlier this month, reporter Joe St. George of KDVR in Denver had a notable exchange with Colorado’s new governor, Jared Polis, a Democrat with a libertarian streak.

His question came during an event at a children’s hospital where Polis signed an executive order that directs state government to, among other initiatives, try and determine “root causes” of low immunization rates in communities, “further study the views of parents,” and “implement a public education and outreach campaign to address vaccine hesitancy and access issues.”

As Colorado Public Radio reported, “One thing the executive order doesn’t do is push to tighten Colorado’s vaccine exemption process, something public health professionals have actively sought through legislative changes. The executive order follows on the heels of a contentious vaccine debate last legislative session in which Polis did not back a Democratic vaccine measure dealing with exemptions.”

Nationally, Colorado is in the basement when it comes to immunization rates. In Colorado, parents can exempt their children from vaccines for non-medical reasons.

As Polis talked about his executive order, St. George, his TV camera rolling, asked him a direct question. Below is the exchange word for word (the KDVR report misquotes both the reporter and the governor; I’ve transcribed it myself instead of copying and pasting, which is why it looks different):

Reporter St. George: “Governor, will you look into the camera and — and say that anti-vaxxers are wrong?”

Governor Polis: “Well, wrong about what? It’s not the decision I made for my kids. I gave my kids their shots, their immunization, I encourage all parents to give kids immunizations.”

Reporter: “Is the movement wrong, though?”

Governor: “Again, we have in our state Christian Scientists, we have people who have objections, and — and nobody should be forced to do anything with their bodies. I’m pro-choice.”

That’s a compelling way to ask a question for sure, and, as Colorado Independent reporter Alex Burness pointed out, Polis’s answer is similar to controversial views that put actress Jessica Biel in the spotlight recently as she lobbied against a California bill to shore up requirements for childhood vaccines. From The New York Times on June 13 about Biel’s efforts:

And it reflected one of the realities of anti-vaccine beliefs: They are held by individuals across the country who might have little else in common, politically or otherwise. Anti-vaccine advocates include wealthy actors in Los Angeles, Orthodox Jews in New York, parents in the Pacific Northwest who send their children to Waldorf schools, Somali-Americans in Minnesota and conservatives who home-school their children.

Ms. Biel quickly issued a statement on Thursday insisting that she is supportive of vaccines, but opposed to the bill in California, which would require that medical exemptions to mandatory vaccination be approved by state health officials, rather than just individual doctors.

But her backpedaling did little to quell the outrage from parents, doctors and others who have accused those in the anti-vaccine movement of allowing highly contagious diseases like measles to spread in the United States. With an outbreak of the measles now underway, and state legislatures around the country debating immunization requirements, the entry of another prominent celebrity into the debate both broadened the scope of the national discussion around the issue and drew a fierce pushback from the medical community.

Burness also pointed out how both Polis and Biel “are from Boulder, where some schools in the district have sub-50% immunization rates.” Read the full New York Times story about the vaccine debate as Colorado is likely to become an increasing focal point in it. And read Burness’s story for The Colorado Independent about how vaccine skeptics are “heartened” by the new governor’s stance.

What you missed on the Sunday front pages across Colorado

The Greeley Tribune profiled a local honey company that’s been around for 95 yearsThe Steamboat Pilot reported on how Routt County is recovering from floodingThe Loveland Reporter-Herald fronted a story about 15 community members who are helping the county develop “its first ever land use rules dealing with oil and gas regulation.” The Longmont Times-Call localized a statewide story about mental health legislationThe Gazette in Colorado Springs localized national pride month with a front-page takeout about the progress and challenges for LGBTQ and transgender residents living in a city that was “known as the epicenter of the anti-gay rights Amendment 2 movement of the early 1990s.” The Grand Junction Daily Sentinel reported on a cascade of complications in the judicial system that arises when a local judge is cited for suspicion of DUIThe Coloradoan in Fort Collins covered the city’s relationship with the big tech company HP and how while they grew up together, they are “growing apart.” The Durango Herald reported how the city’s sales tax is about to riseThe Denver Post reported how an “over-allocation of Colorado River Basin water and climate change are intensifying [a] long-running conflict.” The Boulder Daily Camera reported how “housing could be key to helping Boulder County farmers find workers in [a] limited [and] expensive labor market.”

DC journo sues CO’s secretary of state … with help from Judicial Watch

Todd Shepherd, the former Colorado journalist who once wrote for the libertarian-learning Independence Institute think tank in Colorado and now writes for The Washington Free Beacon in D.C., is suing Colorado’s Democratic secretary of state, Jena Griswold, in a dispute over access to correspondence about the National Popular Vote bill.

You can read the legal filing here. It looks to me like he’s challenging the secretary of state for citing “work-product” for withholding documents, which is one of the exemptions public officials can rely on when responding (or not) to open records requests in Colorado. “There is a pretty broad definition in CORA for work product for elected officials: deliberative materials to help them make a decision,” says Jeff Roberts, director of the Colorado Freedom of Information Coalition. “I think it will be interesting to see how a judge looks at that.”

There’s a notable twist that comes with this lawsuit, beyond that Shepherd’s attorney in the suit is former GOP Secretary of State Scott Gessler. A news release from Judicial Watch, a self-described “conservative, non-partisan educational foundation,” published a news release stating the group “filed a Colorado Open Records Act lawsuit on behalf of” Shepherd. (A Judicial Watch spokesperson didn’t return an email; Shepherd declined to comment, and so did the Secretary of State’s office through a spokesperson.)

Will we see more newsrooms, likely strapped for cash in the fighting-for-records department, increasingly outsourcing litigation to ideologically simpatico outside groups that have agendas beyond journalism? Or maybe just certain kinds of newsrooms. One can imagine the howls from some quarters if a nonprofit newsroom in Colorado teamed up with, say, Ethics Watch (when it was around) or the ACLU on a public records lawsuit involving a Republican officeholder. Or, say, if an environmental journalist in Colorado allowed a well-funded environmental group to foot the bill for litigation on something.

This isn’t the first time Judicial Watch has waded into a Colorado open records dispute, by the way. As Roberts of the CFOIC wrote in 2018: “The judiciary is exempt from the open records law because of two Colorado court rulings, most recently Gleason v. Judicial Watch in 2012. In that case, the Colorado Court of Appeals appeared to leave it to the legislature to define the judicial branch as a state agency for open records purposes.”

A debate about the Coloradoan’s ‘story from the CBD store’ 

In my last newsletter, I wrote about how the Gannett-owned Coloradoan newspaper in Fort Collins is on the hunt for digital subscribers to keep its newsroom sustainable. Recently, though, one of the other ways it generates revenue came under scrutiny on social media.

Someone in the Facebook group “What’s your Plan B,” which is popular with journalists and ex-journalists, posted a link to this — hmmm, what to even call it? — piece of content on the Coloradoan’s website. The byline for this piece of content reads it was authored by “Kalee Stephens, for the CBD Store,” and above the headline reads small text identifying it as a “Story from The CBD Store.” At the end of this content comes this: “Members of the editorial and news staff of the USA Today Network were not involved in the creation of this content.” Here’s what it doesn’t say: Advertising. Sponsored. Paid for. I think it should.

“Native advertising is an important part of our revenue model as it is across the industry, just as advertorials were in print,” said the paper’s content strategist when I raised the issue. “Every story is clearly labeled in multiple places, and it is always promoted as ‘sponsored’ on social and when it appears on our site with news content.” She went on: “In addition, our company has spent a lot of time over several years developing guidelines for native advertising content, labeling and its promotion to ensure that it meets our ethical and editorial standards.”

A debate about the extent to which this content is labeled ensued in the FB group. Again, I’ll reiterate I don’t think it’s clearly labeled enough online. When I see stuff like this, I just have a really hard time believing those who paid for it would be let down if they thought someone who read it assumed it was like any other article in their local newspaper. I do think that’s essentially the point at its root: Trading on the credibility of a local newspaper to try and pull a paid advertisement off to look like a news story.

I used to roll my eyes and think Well by now most readers know the difference, but I don’t anymore. “What always strikes me about this discussion of media literacy is that I never learned it in school even though everyone seems to advocate for it as a topic,” a college student recently wrote to me. I see this in classes where young adults just haven’t gained enough media literacy by the time they get to college to, say, understand what “promotions” in a byline means if the content looks too much like a regular news story. Maybe that will change.

Channel 2’s Chris Parente gets the Westword treatment

Longtime Denver alt-weekly reporter Michael Roberts has kept Westword readers up to date about his city’s TV news personalities for years. For his latest Q-and-A, he takes a look at Chris Parente of KWGN. Roberts notes his “Midwestern upbringing; his love of theater and debate and how it merged into broadcast journalism,” and more. From the story:
He also discusses his decision not to hide his status as a gay man from viewers and how that’s led to what he refers to as “challenges,” albeit far fewer than the positives he’s experienced through an honest representation of who he is. And he gets emotional when talking about his fiance, Luis Rios, a schoolteacher who relocated to Colorado from North Carolina around the time Parente was moved from Everyday, a now-canceled Fox31 program he adored, into the Daybreak gig.
Here’s another excerpt:

On the subject of looking at issues from both sides, some journalists today feel that objectivity is overrated and that reporters should be able to express their own point of view in telling stories. It sounds like you take more of an old-school approach. 

Yes, I do think that as a journalist, it’s my obligation to present both sides fairly. But ultimately, the goal is to reveal truth, whatever that truth may be. As the morning news anchor, it’s not my job to pontificate or editorialize any of the stories I’m doing; that’s not the kind of guy I am. But I do seek truth in our newscasts in the morning, and I think part of the way we get to truth is presenting the perspective of however many sides there might be and at some point finding the truth in that — or allowing viewers to find the truth in that.

Roberts also asked him how those celebrity-interview junkets work:

Are the questions vetted in advance, or can you ask whatever you’d like? 

The questions aren’t vetted, but there’s a code of conduct that nearly every journalist adheres to. That code of conduct is that you’re going to be professional. And my rule of thumb is, I’m not going to ask any personal questions, which are none of my business, and I don’t think they’re relevant anyway. Most journalists are respectful that way, and that’s what keeps the process going. There’s the occasional person who’ll ask a ridiculous, inappropriate question, but to be honest with you, the actors will usually call them out. But the movie studios never ask for the questions in advance or screen them, which is good, because I don’t think I’d do it.

Read the whole thing here.

Bittersweet goodbye in this week’s Colorado media HR report and personnel file

The Gazette’s great news and environment reporter Liz Forster, who published the Environment Weekly newsletter, is leaving for the University of Montana for a degree in environmental law. In January, I spotlighted her as one of the reporters in Colorado doing compelling work on the climate beat. More than 100 miles north in Weld County, journalist Tyler Silvy (his official title at the paper is “content manager” but that just sounds cruel given all he does) is leaving The Greeley Tribune for The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat newspaper in California.

I’m always excited for talented journalists who make big moves on their own terms, but I’m also selfishly sorry to see these two go.

*This column 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 jimmy thomas for creative Commons on Flickr.