From the CEO: How do we remain unbiased?
San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo speaks during an interview with San José Spotlight reporter Jana Kadah on Dec. 14, 2022. Photo by Joseph Geha.

    A prominent Silicon Valley leader called me just as I was wrapping up my work for the day.

    This person, who I’m not naming to respect their privacy, was angry about our election coverage. In particular, one name came up – Johnny Khamis.

    The former San Jose councilmember unsuccessfully ran for a county supervisor seat last year. He lost to former Councilmember Sylvia Arenas in November and this person was convinced we treated Khamis poorly during the election cycle. Unfairly.

    I mentioned an article we wrote that debunked campaign lies and attacks from Arenas and her labor-backed supporters about Khamis—including that he is a pro-Trump MAGA enthusiast.

    The caller’s voice softened on the phone. But I could tell they remained unconvinced.

    Less than a week later, I heard from a source I’ve known for seven years. They were calling to cancel their donation to San José Spotlight following our election coverage. A bit surprised, I tried to figure out why.

    And I heard those familiar words again. Johnny Khamis.

    “You were too favorable to Johnny,” this person lamented, pointing to a reporter calling him a  “moderate” in a recent article. “He is anything but a moderate. He is a conservative.”

    In one week, I’d received two angry phone calls from opposite sides of the political spectrum about the same person. One said we were unfair to him. The other said we were too nice to him. The only person I didn’t hear from about our election coverage? Johnny Khamis.

    This experience isn’t new. My partner and co-founder Josh and I field angry phone calls and emails a few times a week. But it made me realize something—there’s uncertainty about what we do as journalists and how we maintain balance and fairness. This was heightened during the divisive election cycle.

    So I decided to explain how the sausage is made—how we do our journalism—and to introduce a new idea to ensure we’re meeting our goals of objectivity. I’d like to understand why people perceive local news media the way that they do and to explain how we remain neutral—during an election year or not.

    First, people always ask us—how do we get our news?

    Story ideas can come from our local reporters who have their ears (and boots) to the ground. They regularly meet with sources for coffee and build relationships in the community. Ideas sometimes come from public meeting agendas, news conferences or press releases. They even come from readers like you who email or call to ask a question or provide a news tip that leads to a larger investigation.

    San José Spotlight has made community engagement a core part of its mission from day one. That means we host town halls and coffee events with the editors and reporters, we have reader panels and multiple community advisory boards stacked with diverse leaders. We also survey our readers each year (we just launched this year’s survey, please check it out). We want to figure out what we’re doing well and what needs improvement. What are our blind spots? We are constantly seeking feedback and listening to our community.

    How do we remain unbiased?

    We ensure all sides have a voice. We fact-check everything we’re told and seek out alternative viewpoints. Our editors ensure reporters give each perspective an equal amount of space and representation in an article. We always give people a chance to respond to allegations against them – sometimes we even hold stories for days (or weeks) to ensure we can track someone down.

    Do we always get it right? Of course not. Our reporters and editors are human. No one is infallible. And we’re often working under the pressure of daily deadlines. But when we make a mistake, we own up to it. We fix it immediately and we write an editor’s note to disclose the error to readers.

    As a nonprofit news organization, we rely on community support and donations to sustain our work. We’ve adopted policies to ensure there’s a firewall between editorial coverage and revenue—and we do not engage in pay to play.

    No matter how much anyone donates to us (or whether they do), they do not have a say in our editorial content or coverage. They don’t get to tell us what to write or how to write it. In fact, as members of the Institute for Nonprofit News, we’ve adopted a policy of editorial independence and donor transparency.

    Both are on our website on the About Us page.

    Lastly, we are concerned with the amount of abuse and vitriol that has overwhelmed our comments sections. As we seek to remove hate speech from the conversation, we’re considering how to regulate (or possibly discontinue) our website’s comments section. While I’m a firm believer in free speech and giving a platform for civic discussion, this forum has attracted divisive rhetoric despite our best efforts to moderate it.

    In the meantime, there are plenty of other ways to reach us. You can submit a news tip here. The reporters list their emails at the end of every story.

    Now it’s your turn.

    As we kick off 2023 (our fifth year!), I want to keep improving San José Spotlight to ensure we’re meeting these goals. I’ve decided to host listening sessions with readers to learn more about how we can achieve fairness and objectivity in everything we do.

    Would you like to join a session? It’s all off-the-record because I want candid feedback. Email me to join: [email protected].

    And as I wrap this up, I owe a thank you to Johnny Khamis for helping to spark this column, whether he knows it or not.

    Every learning experience—and angry phone call—is an opportunity to serve San Jose better.

    Contact Ramona Giwargis at r[email protected] or follow @RamonaGiwargis on Twitter.

    Comment Policy (updated 5/10/2023): Readers are required to log in through a social media or email platform to confirm authenticity. We reserve the right to delete comments or ban users who engage in personal attacks, hate speech, excess profanity or make verifiably false statements. Comments are moderated and approved by admin.

    Leave a Reply