With $1.1 million verdict, Cal Coast jury sends a message to journalists: Get it right

Charles Tenborg, right and his attorney James Wagstaffe speak to the media after the jury found Cal Coast News’ Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn guilty of defamation and awarded Tenborg $1.1 million in damages.
Charles Tenborg, right and his attorney James Wagstaffe speak to the media after the jury found Cal Coast News’ Karen Velie and Daniel Blackburn guilty of defamation and awarded Tenborg $1.1 million in damages. jjohnston@thetribunenews.com

Pitfalls abound in journalism.

Much of the work is done on deadline. Sources who supply information may have it wrong themselves. Especially in small- and midsize markets, journalists often are called on to report on subjects outside their areas of expertise.

Living in this glass house ourselves, we hesitate to throw stones when other media get things wrong.

There are exceptions.

Long before the term “fake news” was coined, there were a few sensational stories of journalists working for well-respected, major media outlets who out-and-out made things up. (If you haven’t seen it, watch the movie “Shattered Glass,” based on the career of reporter Stephen Glass, who infamously fabricated stories for The New Republic and other publications in the 1990s.)

What is more common — particularly in this era of highly partisan “news” outlets — is reporting based on unproven rumors, assumptions and innuendo.

That brings us to last week’s $1.1 million libel verdict against two Cal Coast News writers. The case was brought by Charles Tenborg, the past president of an Arroyo Grande waste management company. In an article posted in 2012, Cal Coast News alleged Tenborg illegally received a no-bid contract with the Integrated Waste Management Authority; was fired from a previous San Luis Obispo County job; and had encouraged his clients to break the law.

Not true, Tenborg said. After his request for a correction was essentially ignored, he filed a lawsuit.

After listening to several days of testimony, it took jurors only about two hours to unanimously find that Tenborg was libeled and to award damages by nearly unanimous votes. (Unlike criminal cases, verdicts in civil cases don’t have to be unanimous.)

To put it bluntly, the jury got it right.

We wish it were otherwise, because when one media outlet fails to uphold basic journalistic principles, it reinforces the notion that journalists are jackals who go after stories at the expense of innocent people.

Plaintiff Charles Tenborg and his lawyer, James Wagstaffe, discuss their defamation case against Cal Coast News on Thursday, March 16, 2017. A jury found Cal Coast News libels a Tenborg, a former Arroyo Grande hazardous waste contractor, when they

The reality is most of us are regular people who, like all regular people, sometimes make mistakes.

In most cases, they are garden-variety, unintentional errors. We may transpose digits in a telephone number, get the wrong spelling on a name or misunderstand something said during an interview. (One example: A former colleague at a different news organization once misheard the phrase “Rockefeller Republicans” and wrote it as “rock ’n’ roll Republicans.”)

It’s embarrassing, but we correct it and we move on … after inwardly vowing not to make that same mistake again.

The Cal Coast News case did not involve small, inadvertent errors.

During the trial, a San Francisco State University journalism professor and former reporter testified that “it didn’t seem that reasonable care was taken to get the truth.”

Tenborg’s attorney said Cal Coast News did not research easily verifiable facts, which is all the more perplexing given testimony that staff had been working on the story for months.

Unfortunately, the outcome of this case also reflects poorly on Cal Poly, because journalism professor Bill Loving also has been working as an editor at Cal Coast News. (Loving has indicated that he plans to resign from Cal Poly effective Aug. 31.)

According to an article in New Times, on the witness stand Loving “expressed confidence that the story was correct and was reported with due diligence.”

Twelve citizens didn’t see it that way.

Twelve citizens stood up for the truth and, in doing so, reminded all journalists of their obligation to get it right … and to correct what’s wrong.

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