KPBS and the Filner Files

Oct 16, 2013

Credit KPBS News screenshot
San Diego Mayor Bob Filner resigned in August, after several women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment. KPBS broke the story and led the coverage as it unfolded over several weeks, reporting on the defiant mayor and the growing calls for his resignation. KPBS created a “Filner Files” web page to collect their coverage and built an interactive timeline to put the story in context. Their hard work paid off: five KPBS stories about Filner made the Digital Services top 20 list of stories for the month of July. Those 5 stories alone received more than 161,000 pageviews.

I asked KPBS Senior News Editor Mark Sauer to tell me how they broke this story:

Everyone had heard the whispers and rumors [about Filner’s sexual advances], especially as he ran for mayor last year after 20 years in Congress. His targets had good reasons to not come forward; most believed their's was an isolated case and each of them was beholden to the congressman/mayor in some respect, either as an employee or as someone wanting help or to develop a business relationship.

Our investigative reporter Amita Sharma had been working for months with some of these women to get them to go on the record with their stories. She had assistance from inewsource, the independent non-profit journalist unit embedded in our newsroom. So we had relationships in place when very good sources of mine — staunch progressives/Democrats and Filner supporters — told me in interviews that they had met privately with Filner and insisted he resign and get help for his disorder. Each of these sources was convinced he would not do that.

The stature of these individuals made this immediate news, which KPBS broke. Still, we had no women who'd been targeted by Filner coming forward with particular allegations. But our months of work soon paid off. Filner's former communications chief filed a lawsuit alleging sexual harassment in the workplace. Then eight more women turned to KPBS in the following days to tell their specific stories. We gave them the time and a respected forum in which to relate these sensitive and difficult details … in ways commercial stations simply don't do. They felt comfortable here and felt they benefited from the reputation of our station and the national networks to which we belong.

Investigative reporting is time-intensive; it takes months, sometimes years, of effort before there is any payoff. It takes one or more reporters away from feeding the beast - the important daily output of the news organization - and for that and other reasons, it’s difficult for many stations to do. But Suzanne Marmion, the Director of News and Editorial Strategy at KPBS, says that was the only way they were able to get the story:

We've worked hard in the past two years and quietly beefed up our accountability reporting.  We have had an investigative reporter on staff, even [back] when our newsroom had closer to half a dozen reporters.  Even in newsrooms with more limited staffing, where you may not have reporters on beats, a station can make a strategic decision to prioritize top-notch accountability reporting.  It means acknowledging we can't do everything, as we all know too too well, but we can be selective to choose the most important work we can do.

KPBS has defined its journalistic mission and has made difficult choices about what it can and can’t do. By focusing on priorities, they’ve gained new credibility and impact in their community.