Vasché: Journalist of Year exemplifies what reporting news is about

April 19, 2009 

"The purpose of journalism is to provide people with information they need to be free and self-governing."

That's how journalists/ authors Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenthiel, in their book "The Elements of Journalism," describe the heart and soul of what The Modesto Bee is and does.

"We need news to live our lives, to protect ourselves, bond with each other, identify friends and enemies," they write. "Journalism is simply the system societies generate to supply this news."

It's been that way for a long, long time.

Down through history, Kovach and Rosenthiel explain, "rulers used news to hold their societies together. It provided a sense of unity and shared purpose. It even helped tyrannical rulers control their people by binding them around a common threat. (But), history reveals one other important trend. The more democratic the society, the more news and information it tends to have."

Providing the news and information that is so critical to our community and our democracy has been our goal at The Bee for nearly 80 years, and over those decades several hundred men and women in the newsroom have dedicated themselves to that task.

That remains our goal at The Bee today, and the several dozen journalists on our staff are every bit as dedicated to the task as those who served before them.

Helping lead the charge is reporter Adam Ashton.

Each year I'm privileged to honor as Journalist of the Year a staff member whose performance best exemplifies the principles of public service journalism. This year, while several on our staff received well-deserved nominations, Ashton was the clear choice.

Since arriving at The Bee in September 2005 from our sister paper in Merced, Ashton consistently has been one of the newsroom's top reporters.

Readers of the paper see his byline on stories from one of our prime beats, Modesto city government. Readers of modbee.com know him not just for those stories, but also for his "After Deadline" blog about what happens at City Hall. In covering government and politics, he is a staunch advocate of the public's right to know, and has used California's Public Records Act to obtain and report on everything from elected officials' appointment calendars to public employee salaries.

In the fall, Ashton packed his duffel bag and headed to Iraq for a two-month stint in McClatchy Newspaper's Baghdad bureau. In the paper and online, he gave us fresh perspectives on the events, issues and people in the war-torn country. He even "survived" the infamous shoe attack on President George W. Bush from his seat only feet away from the assailant.

On his return, Ashton picked up where he left off as the public's watchdog over Modesto's elected and appointed city officials. He's continued to tell stories of people whose lives have been changed forever by the war in Iraq.

He does that and much, much more because of his commitment to, as you read at the top of this piece, "provide people with information they need to be free and self-governing."

"I've learned from the best, with Joanne Sbranti and Garth Stapley in this newsroom. I'm lucky to work with them, and even more fortunate that The Bee encourages me to fire off records requests for stories that you'll remember," Ashton said. "Last year was unreal, from reporting on mistreated Asian subcontractors in Baghdad to getting records that showed Modesto's payroll rising while its revenue shrank. It's a job that doesn't feel like work."

In writing their book, Kovach and Rosenthiel surveyed thousands of citizens and interviewed hundreds of journalists. From their research they came up with a list of principles that journalists agreed with and citizens have a right to expect.

Those principles include:

Journalists' first obligation is to the truth.

Journalism's first loyalty is to citizens.

Journalism's essence is a discipline of verification.

Journalists must maintain an independence from those they cover.

Journalism must serve as an independent monitor of power and give a voice to the voiceless.

Journalism must provide a forum for public criticism, compromise and consensus.

Journalists must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.

Journalism must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.

Journalists must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.

Just as our predecessors have done since the mid-1930s, Ashton and the rest of us at The Bee today are committed to reflecting those principles in all that we do. Whether it's in print or online, our goal is to give you, the people of our region, news and information that is reliable, relevant, timely and useful in the decisions you make in everyday life and as you participate in our representative democracy.

Vasché, The Bee's editor and senior vice president, can be reached at mvasche@modbee.com.

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