Published Online: July 10, 2002
Published in Print: July 10, 2002, as Media

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Media Watchers

Stung by what they claim is bad reporting, school officials in San Juan Capistrano, Calif., are slapping back at the local media— with a Web page taking journalists to task for errors, distortions, and omissions.

The school district's Media Watch program is an "outgrowth of a disturbing trend we've seen—there are too many mistakes, deliberate or otherwise; too many articles that lack context," said David J. Smollar, the communication director for the 47,000-student San Juan Capistrano district in Orange County.

A former journalist, Mr. Smollar cited an "attitude" among reporters that "as a public institution you are ipso facto venal, or out to steal the public money." Newspaper editors admit errors only grudgingly and bury corrections deep in their pages, he said.

The page, which debuted in June, can be found on the district's Web site, at www.capousd.org. At press time, the page cited problems in five stories in local weekly newspapers—all of them owned by TheOrange County Register.

The charges include misrepresenting the district's contract offer to its teachers' union; misconstruing a comment by a school trustee; fabricating an alarming quote by a student about the way a search of school lockers was conducted; and exaggerating the impact of district budget cuts on one school's sports programs and another's Latin program.

In two cases, the Media Watch Web page reported, the papers published corrections.

Mr. Smollar, who was a reporter for seven years for the Los Angeles Times and, briefly, for TheOrange County Register, said the Web page is not an attempt to deflect or cover up bad news.

"If it's done and the story is correct, so be it," he said. "But my superintendent is not going to excuse sloppy reporting."

San Juan Capistrano Superintendent James A. Fleming conceived of the idea after writing a 70-page rebuttal to a 2001 series in the Register on overcrowding in area schools. He felt "there were errors of omission and commission in that series that just begged to be corrected," said Mr. Smollar, who joined the district in February.

Tonnie Katz, the editor of the Register, defended the series on overcrowding, but said the district is free to critique the media.

"I am worried that this is a platform from which they can spew venom, [but] they're entitled to do what they wish—as long as the venom is accurate," she said.

—Andrew Trotter atrotter@epe.org

Vol. 21, Issue 42, Page 15

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