Over the last year, multiple sources have contacted Tallahassee Reports about the potential bias of Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew’s reporting on the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Jackie Pons.
Previoulsy, the complaints have been about the number of stories, 40-50, dedicated to the coverage of the investigations into the awarding of construction contracts to Pons’ donors and the inclusion of wild accusations in articles about activities at the School Board without any independent evidence.
However, the issue of bias has been raised again with two stories written by Mr. Burlew that appeared on the front page of the Tallahassee Democrat on Sunday, February 28th.
The charges of bias centers around the timing, the lack of “new” news in the content of the articles, and the inclusion of the writer’s assessment of a political campaign.
In addition, Tallahassee Reports, through a public records request, has received documents that show Mr. Burlew failed to publish information in his possession that would have discredited allegations in a lawsuit filed against the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Jackie Pons.
First, today’s articles.
The story above the fold in Sunday’s paper, titled “The right turn that rocked district”, is about the arrest of School Board employee Paul Byrd. The story seems to have been written simply because it has been two years since the arrest of Mr. Byrd.
However, on the front page is a paragraph that sets the political context of the article and raises serious questions about bias.
Mr. Burlew writes, “the fallout from the arrest ultimately would cast doubt on the political future of Byrd’s former boss and one-time friend, Superintendent Jackie Pons, in the run up to his 2016 re-election.”
Burlew’s assessment of Pons’ political future comes during a campaign for Leon County School Suprintendent that is well under way. Three candidates, Rocky Hanna, Scott Maddox, and Jackie Pons have each raised over $150,000 each.
Burlew’s view would seem to be best provided in an opinion column.
Below the Byrd arrest story on the front page is another article penned by Burlew which is entitled “FDLE probe into Leon schools is active, ongoing.”
This story appears to have been constructed around a single phone call to FDLE to inquire about the status of the investigation into Leon County Schools. The response by the FDLE spokeswoman was it is “active” and no other details were provided.
After this revelation, Burlew begins to site “news” from June of last year and spends the second half of the article on facts already reported about the investigation into Leon Schools. Also in the article, is a large picture of Superintendent Jackie Pons next to a picture of an FDLE emblem.
The fairness of writing such a story given the ongoing campaign raises questions about future stories and the criteria used by the Executive Editor at the Tallahassee Democrat.
A Boat Purchase and a DUI
Two of the wilder accusations that have originated from the local reporting surrounding the Leon County School District over the last two years includes a $30,000 boat the district supposedly paid for and a Jackie Pons DUI.
Like most rumors, it is hard to tell exactly where they get started.
On June 18, 2014 Tallahassee Democrat Reporter Jeff Burlew submitted a public records request to the Leon County School Board that asked for “copies of any emails, memos, receipts, purchase orders and any and all other documentation involving the purchase of a boat by the school district.”
On June 19, 2014, at 8:30 AM the Tallahassee Democrat published an article that reported accusations made in a lawsuit against the Leon County School Board and Superintendent Jackie Pons.
The following section was published in the Democrat:
The lawsuit says Nichols also was asked about whether she knew anything about a boat or beach house or rumors of a DUI crash involving Pons and a district vehicle. Nichols responded by saying she’d heard about a purchase by the district of a boat for $30,000 but that it wasn’t properly authorized. She also said her daughter’s best friend worked at a body shop where Pons had taken a district vehicle and that he’d paid for the repairs out of his own pocket to avoid an invoice to the district.
Through public record requests, Tallahassee Reports has learned that Tallahassee Democrat reporter Jeff Burlew had in his possession, on June 19 at 4:56 pm, information that did not substantiate accusations about a boat purchase in the article made against Leon County School Superintendent Jackie Pons.
The information provided by the school district is provided in an email below. Click image to enlarge.
The information in the above email clearly shows the accusation about the boat purchase was not supported by any public documents.
However, for whatever reason, Mr. Burlew did not wait for the information from the School Board before publishing the accusation about the boat.
In fact, Mr. Burlew has yet to publish the findings provided in the above public records request.
In addition, the accusation that Pons had a DUI in a School District vehicle could have been easily verified by checking with local law enforcement officials.
Was it Mr. Burlew’s responsibility to provide the information?
Was it the responsibility of the Tallahassee Democrat to ensure fairness and address omissions of facts.
The American Society of News Editors states that:
Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.
Tallahassee Reports will continue to provide information that holds elected officials and the local media accountable.