Transparency benefits almost everyone. So journalists should be skeptical of people who want to obscure or hide their involvement in any given situation.

Everyday people might feel uncomfortable pinning others by name to what they say and do, but for journalists, that’s part of the job. Except when it isn’t, which happens uncomfortably often around here.

Most Hawaii news media could improve quickly – and dramatically – just by insisting that their journalists name names when they refer to information provided by their sources. This is not a difficult or unusual standard. That’s part of the most basic journalistic training. The American Press Institute succinctly describes such transparency as a core element of journalism, necessary “so audiences can make their own assessment of the information.”

How can you determine what information really means without its context, including who provided it, how credible that person is, and what that person’s motivations might be?

As an example, Honolulu Star-Advertiser reporter Kathryn Mykleseth did the commendable work of attending the recent Hawaiian Electric Industries annual shareholder meeting. Her report included many fascinating insights into the company and its culture, as it tries to complete a sale for $4.3 billion to a Florida-based company called NextEra.

Much of the opposition to the proposed merger has come from critics who suggest NextEra Energy is trying to put one over on Hawaii.
Much of the opposition to the proposed merger has come from critics who suggest NextEra Energy is trying to put one over on Hawaii. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Gov. David Ige opposes this transaction, primarily, it seems, because he considers a local monopoly over our electricity at least marginally better than a monopoly controlled by a megalithic corporation on the other side of the country. For a provocative examination of some of the other choices we could have in this kind of deal, I recommend Dennis Hollier’s article in Hawaii Business “Who Should Own Hawaii Electric?” and the NextEra archives produced and maintained by Civil Beat.

Who Said That?

Give the Star-Advertiser credit, though, for sending Mykleseth to this meeting and for documenting this exchange – reminiscent of the Mitt Romney 47 percent comment – between an anonymous shareholder and Jeff Watanabe, chairman of HEI’s board of directors:

The shareholder, inexplicably unidentified by Mykleseth, asked, “Why can’t we get the governor on board? What is it going to take? Money?” Then, Mykleseth reported, the people in the room erupted in a bout of laughter.

Because that is the extent of the context of this situation, and the Star-Advertiser doesn’t tell us who this shareholder was, I can only imagine how this situation might have played out.

Was this the maniacal laughter of evil overlords intent on raking enormous profits from a public resource that everyone must have and everyone must purchase from a single provider? Was this shareholder seriously suggesting greasing political wheels with bribes? Was it simply a light joke, not meant to be taken seriously?

And What Does It Mean?

Without knowing who the shareholder was (and what power he or she has), and with no follow-up questions or context, I don’t know the real intent of this message.

Mykleseth reported that the group thought it was really funny. But when I look at my electricity bill every month, and think about the millions of dollars of profit being skimmed from all of us powerless ratepayers confined to this grid, and the millions HEI executives plan to make from this sale (CEO Connie Lau alone reportedly will get more than $10 million if this deal goes through)the anecdote doesn’t really put me into the most jovial of moods.

So I want to know who asked that about the money. And I want a journalist to follow up on all that comment implies about this proposed sale, including the company culture at HEI, the intense profit motive underlying this deal, the strategies and tactics of “influencing” politicians and the other ways, behind the scenes, in which the money could affect this monumental decision.

But because Mykleseth didn’t attach a name, this person is unaccountable for the “joke.” Who benefits from the anonymity of that stockholder exchange? Certainly not you, dear reader. It’s the stockholder who floated the idea, and the stockholders, in general, for giving such conversations credibility.

Squeak, Wheel

So what can you do about this sort of anonymizing of responsibility in our society?

My recommendation is to stand against it at every chance you get. Make comments on the stories online. Write letters to the editor. Demand better journalism. We should know, for example, who these stockholders are and what connections they have in the community, including how they might be trying to influence decisions and make money off what should be considered a public resource.

Make comments on the stories online. Write letters to the editor. Demand better journalism.

Would you rather read more about that part of the story? Or the full-length article last month about HECO opening its fifth charging station? The Star-Advertiser actually assigned Mykleseth and staff photographer Craig T. Kojima to cover that “event,” marking the creation of the 203rd charging station in the state, showing three administrators – including CEO Alan Oshima – wearing leis and marveling at the sight of the charging station in HECO’s parking lot.

In the zero-sum game of journalistic resources – in which there only are so many of those to go around – our journalists could be asking HECO executives tough questions about their pursuits of our shared renewable energy goals or taking pictures of them in parking lots wearing leis. Or both at the same time!

Hiding Untrained Deputies

Hawaii News Now, meanwhile, could be pushing authorities more about their findings of high-level sheriff’s deputies who reportedly lack basic law enforcement training. Or they can show video of New Zealand police officers dancing. Which do you think benefits Hawaii audiences more?

I wrote last week about the problems with anonymity in Hawaii News Now’s coverage of the training issue. Briefly, by not naming the sheriff’s deputies accused of incompetence, former Hawaii News Now’s reporter Keoki Kerr failed to hold these deputies directly accountable, and he also didn’t provide enough evidence for us to know whether or not the report is credible.

Since Hawaii News Now (and other stations, such as KITV) apparently are on to other pressing issues, like the dancing cops taking the Running Man challenge, I tried to follow up Kerr’s reporting by filing a public information request with the Hawaii Department of Public Safety for the names of the deputies.

Not-So-Public Information

That attempt was blocked by an absurd argument from public information officer Toni Schwartz and her legal counsel. She said naming these deputies, who were accused in Kerr’s report of bungling cases for decades, has the “potential to compromise the security of the people those sheriffs are tasked with protecting.”

She added that creating such a “compromise” in security would “frustrate the legitimate government function” of the deputies.

The public has a right to know the names of sheriff deputies who need better training before they are assigned to protect the governor, among other duties.
The public has a right to know the names of sheriff deputies who need better training before they are assigned to protect the governor, among other duties. Patti Epler/Civil Beat

My understanding of the way law enforcement is supposed to work is that deputies are supposed to protect us, the citizens (who pay for their uniforms, cars, facilities, guns, salaries, training, medical benefits, retirement plans, etc.) against law breakers. I am frustrated, indeed, to learn from Schwartz that our Sheriff Division wants to make the argument that such a serious charge should not be addressed in a transparent way, with the public involved.

If Kerr’s report is incorrect, then he should be held publicly accountable. If Kerr’s report is correct, then these deputies bungling cases for decades should be held accountable (and reparations should be made to the victims).

In either case, someone should be holding this bag. But nobody is, because Kerr declined to name names, contrary to professional code, and our local government officials are not doing their jobs, either, by publicly investigating these claims or calling them out as false.

An Appeal For Transparency

So, with the guidance of The Civil Beat Law Center for the Public Interest – a public resource I highly recommend for everyone to use as a way to help our government become more transparent – I have appealed the DPS decision to the Office of Information Practices, which is supposed to help get public information in the hands of the public. I will keep you updated on this appeal.

As citizens – who pay for these services and anoint these law enforcement officers with tremendous power over our lives – we have the right to know who works in our government and what they do for us. If their behavior is questioned, we should know who is being accused of what and have an open and transparent discussion about it. Such due process in a public forum is fundamental to our nation’s concept of justice.

As citizens we have the right to know who works in our government and what they do for us.

If the deputies have done nothing wrong, we should demand as a community that Hawaii News Now retract that story and apologize on air for unfairly maligning these officers. If the deputies are guilty of these serious allegations, a full public investigation is warranted. By not naming names, Kerr has left journalists, the community and the officers all in awkward positions.

We can clearly see that someone benefits from this lack of transparency. Is it Kerr, who doesn’t have the sources and evidence to back up his journalistic claims? Or is it the deputies, who are hiding from their misdeeds?

We also can clearly see that someone is not benefitting from this lack of transparency. Any guess who that might be?

About the Author

  • Brett Oppegaard

    Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at brett.oppegaard@gmail.com.

    Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.