NORTH FULTON, Ga. – With the ease of communication that social media and the internet have brought, we face an increasing need for vigilance when browsing websites for information.
Just as the national media is plagued with fake news on the internet, users should take care to know the websites and bloggers who operate sites aimed at smaller communities.
Citizen journalists and grassroots organizations can be of enormous benefit to the communities. The internet and social media give communities the ability to contact large (or small) groups of people easily and cheaply.
But certain caveats come with the ease of mass communication. It is as easy to pass on disinformation as information, and to do it anonymously.
Social media is a growing phenomenon in local politics that has given more people a platform on which they can add their voice in decision-making.
Cities such as Johns Creek have gone to great lengths to give residents the opportunity for input.
In addition to conducting public neighborhood meetings the city streams online meetings of the City Council, Planning Commission and many other ad hoc meetings – all in the name of transparency.
Yet, there are citizens who insist they do not get all the information.
This is a gap traditionally filled by local news affiliates and now another group – citizen journalists, who usually toil alone and take pains to ensure local governments don’t sweep unpleasant items under the carpet.
But who holds citizen journalists accountable?
Professional journalism ethics dictate a code of conduct regarding unnamed sources and verifying facts. Editors hold reporters accountable for what they write. When warranted, they make retractions, corrections or clarifications.
There are also special interest groups who take up the mantle of representing the public’s desires. They band together for or against policies or projects local governments are instituting or considering.
Yet these special interest groups may or may not be all they purport. The leaders may speak for dozens or hundreds of supporters, but it is difficult to pin down how many they represent when they don’t have scheduled meetings or membership rolls.
In Johns Creek, residents have alternatives to the city’s website for information. One is the Johns Creek Herald, a newspaper launched by Appen Media Group in 1997.
Another is a more recent phenomenon, The Johns Creek Post, a blog begun by resident Jennifer Jensen. In it, she editorializes against policies and actions taken by the city, and she posts responses to her blogs, many from anonymous authors, who share her beliefs.
Jensen says she is filling a vital role, looking deeper into issues no one else is probing.
We requested an interview with Jensen who agreed only if she were emailed the questions.
We asked her what is the role of the Johns Creek Post in the community?
“Johns Creek does not have a dedicated source of news to inform the residents of the important information,” Jensen replied.
“Over the years we have noticed that the [Johns Creek] Herald omits or does not fairly represent local issues and events that we have seen occur at City Council meetings. We feel it is important to provide another perspective for the residents.”
Jensen said she considers the Johns Creek Post to be “the sole source of information” regarding the city.
“JCP is the only site that posts videos, contracts, zoning cases etc. Most other news outlets repeat the press releases of the city verbatim,” Jensen said.
“The City of Johns Creek has four full-time staff [ers] dedicated to informing the residents of what they want and how they want the residents to perceive things,” Jensen said.
“As long-term invested homeowners, it is our duty and privilege to inform residents of potential issues and goings-on that would impact our quality of life and home values,” she said. “We provide a different perspective especially on important issues that affect how the city will look and feel in the future.”
Johns Creek Mayor Mike Bodker, the frequent subject of the Post’s attacks, said the city does an “excellent job” of keeping citizens informed.
“But when we see things that are just not true posted on the Johns Creek Post we send [Jensen] the real facts but she refuses to acknowledge them,” Bodker said.
Jensen defends the job her blog does. She said she took on the job because no news source, particularly the Johns Creek Herald, was doing the job.
“Over the years we have noticed that the JC Herald omits or does not fairly represent local issues and events that we have seen occur at City Council meetings. We feel it is important to provide another perspective for the residents,” Jensen wrote.
Critics question the integrity of the Johns Creek Post because it does not post submissions of contrary views or those defending people who have been attacked.
Anonymous messages critical of the city or that have what appear to be phony names (Michaela Badker, for example) are common. Jensen was asked if she knows the real identities of the people who make these comments and what journalistic standards she uses in allowing them.
According to Jensen, the Post, like many websites, allows anonymous responses to her posts.
“We allow anonymous comments, as do most websites on the net. I don’t recall a commenter on the JCP website with that name [Michaela Badker],” Jensen said.
Jensen added, “The City of Johns Creek allows Michaela Badker (whoever that is) to comment on the city’s Facebook page. You should direct that question at the city staff.”
“Ironically, those that have been complaining the most in the public arena have used aliases to post attacks not only against the [Johns Creek Post} but other council members as well on the Johns Creek Post. We find the hypocrisy rather disturbing and unprofessional, especially from an elected official,” Jensen said in response.
But Mayor Bodker calls this subterfuge. The posts have attacked him personally as well as his family.
Asked why he hasn’t sued for libel, Bodker said it is something he has considered. (Jensen says she too is considering “several lawsuits” concerning damage to her reputation.)
“But to launch a lawsuit in the middle of a campaign would draw attention away from the issues,” Bodker said. “And it would play into the narrative that I was a bully. But I don’t think protecting one’s good name is bullying.”
Asked for specifics, Bodker said there have been a number of posts that said he was involved in corruption – charges he says that are patently false.
He has been accused of taking payoffs and making payoffs, he said.
“Neither of which could possibly be true,” Bodker said. “Further, the Johns Creek Post purports itself to be a news source as opposed to honestly portraying itself as a biased blog.”
Bodker accuses The Johns Creek Post of publishing only those posts that “support the narrative Jensen wishes to convey.”
A common complaint is one voiced by businessman Wayne Carrel.
“A friend was telling me about a post that just was not true,” Carrel said. “He tried to rebut it, but it never got on. Then another friend told me the same thing. It’s like only certain people get to comment.”
Bodker echoed that account. He said he’s been told of several cases where comments were edited to change their meaning to further the Post’s narrative.
Jensen denied that in her response.
“First, you are assuming the JCP takes down people’s rebuttals. We do not,” she said. “We would also like to point out that the Johns Creek Herald is under no obligation to post Letters to the Editor. It is safe to say, that both the Johns Creek Post and Johns Creek Herald do not post libelous and defamatory content.”
Some have accused the Johns Creek Post of cyber bullying as a way to stem critical posts on her site.
“That is why we allow anonymous comments,” Jensen said. “It is the residents who are afraid of retaliation from the city for speaking out.”
Irene Sanders is one who does speak out. Sanders is the former Thornhill HOA president and a current member of the Citizens Advisory Committee for the update on the city’s comprehensive plan.
She says she has been “almost relentlessly attacked” in Jensen’s blog for supporting the redevelopment plan for Dean Gardens on Old Alabama Road.
“One of her fake posters harassed me on my Facebook page. I turned it over to the police,” Sanders said. “If they were real people I could sue for libel.”
Sanders said the harassment has not stopped.
At the Sept. 23 City Council meeting, both Sanders and Jensen got up during public comment. Sanders complained about a community blog (she later confirmed she meant the Johns Creek Post) that was “grossly misleading” about actions taken by the Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) for the Comprehensive Plan.
Jensen accused the CAC of “blowing through” zoning plans without giving the public proper consideration.
“We have met 15 times over the last year,” Sanders said. “And we have more work to do.”
Jensen spoke at public comment also, accusing an unnamed council member of “invading her site.” She promised legal action against the unnamed council member.
Then she sat down directly behind Sanders. Sanders moved, and Jensen moved again to sit directly behind her. Sanders moved a third time and Jensen did the same.
Sanders said later she felt threatened and asked a John Creek Police officer to escort her to her car.
Sanders said Jensen is “tricky.”
She says her cyber abuse happened because of the Dean Gardens rezoning. The law behind that rezoning was clear, she said, and the property owner (entertainment mogul Tyler Perry) had every right to develop it.
“[Jensen] insinuated I was on the take for supporting the rezoning. She continues to blame me,” Sanders said.
Like it or not, bloggers and internet newsletters will continue to play a part in local politics. For some, it may be the only opportunity they have to see their concerns addressed.
But, the responsibility for accuracy and fairness lies just as much with the readers as it does with the online publishers.
Jenifer Jensen agreed to be interviewed in question & answer form for this article. In turn she requested we answer her questions. CLICK HERE to see the Post and Herald’s responses.