In our online world, the increasing numbers of citizen journalists continues to raise challenging ethical issues.
Some enterprising writers provide excellent contributions; others masquerade as reporters while trampling the accuracy test that provides the foundation of our profession.
I was reminded of that reading a recent article posted by John Hrabe, who runs CalNewsroom.com, "an independent news website focused on California politics and state government."
"Our focus," according to the website, "is on in-depth investigations that are ignored by the mainstream press. We strive to cover the stories that no one else will. To give a voice to the underdog. To take on the powerful interests."
Laudable goals. With the shrinking mainstream press, the public needs additional reliable reporting. But the "powerful interest" Hrabe took on last week was San Francisco Chronicle political writer Carla Marinucci.
In a piece headlined "SF Chronicle scoop on Kashkari's voting record came from Kashkari campaign," Hrabe suggests that Marinucci's article on the Republican gubernatorial candidate was a planted story. He then questions her ethics by suggesting she should have disclosed that.
Marinucci's responded through Twitter on Monday morning: "Too bad @johnhrabe never contacted me on this story -- it is totally false." And, from everything I can tell, she's right. Hrabe owes her an apology and retraction.
A disclaimer: Marinucci is a friend whom I've known more than 30 years ago, first as a colleague, then as a competitor. She's a standout journalist with tenacity, amazing energy and high professional ethics. And she is legendary for vetting major candidates by investigating an obvious question: Do they bother to vote?
In this case, she discovered Neel Kashkari failed to cast ballots in nearly half the elections in which he was eligible since 1998. It was old-fashioned reporting: She queried election offices, mostly by telephone and in person, where Kashkari had lived.
She says she then went to Kashkari spokesman Aaron McLear for comment. The campaign had researched the same issue. Hrabe claims Marinucci instead got her information from the campaign and never independently verified it.
His entire piece hinges on a false assumption. He writes with emphasis, "In the process of obtaining public records, the requester creates a public record." Hrabe filed public records requests trying to find Marinucci's. When he couldn't, he concluded that she never sought the voting information.
But there is no legal requirement to submit a written request to obtain public information. Some, not all, elections offices require that requesters, usually seeking bulk data, sign that they're not using the information for nonpolitical commercial purposes.
But, generally, "a person's voting history is public information, and doesn't require a Public Records Act request. It's open," says Joe Canciamilla, elections chief in Contra Costa. He adds he would have provided Marinucci the same information without creating a paper trail.
A good editor would have questioned Hrabe's claim. But Hrabe has no editor at CalNewsroom.com. "I'm solely responsible for that piece," he wrote me in response to questions.
Hrabe works for two other online sites. He's editor of the conservative aggregator site FlashReport.org, which featured his story on Marinucci prominently, and contributor to CalWatchdog.com, a journalism project of the conservative Pacific Research Institute think tank. Both sites disavow involvement with Hrabe's story.
Asked why he didn't contact Marinucci for comment, Hrabe responded that she would have then "beat CalNewsroom.com to publication," suggesting competitiveness was more important to him than fairness and accuracy. One wonders what she would have published, that he was trying to besmirch her?
Even if Hrabe's thesis were true, why would it matter? Here, Hrabe tries to play media watchdog, citing in his article the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics to "Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."
That same code also says, "Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing."
When asked whether his piece stood up to journalistic standards, he wrote back, "Unlike major media outlets, CalNewsroom.com does not claim to follow the guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists."
That explains a lot.