U.S. Press Freedom Tracker

Florida daily newspaper said feud led sheriff to disinvite it from news conference

Incident Details

Date of Incident
October 2, 2023
DeLand, Florida

Denial of Access

Government agency or public official involved

Sheriff Mike Chitwood of Volusia County, Florida, during an Oct. 2, 2023, news conference. The Daytona Beach News-Journal said it was purposefully not invited to the event.

October 2, 2023

The Daytona Beach News-Journal was purposely not invited to a news conference held by Volusia County Sheriff Mike Chitwood on Oct. 2, 2023, according to the Florida news outlet.

The press conference announced the arrest of a 17-year-old alleged to have sold a fatal dose of fentanyl to a minor. When News-Journal Executive Editor John Dunbar emailed Chitwood’s media staff about it, they explained the lack of invitation was deliberate.

“No oversight, sorry,” Chitwood’s Director of Public Affairs Andrew Gant replied. “The Sheriff is no longer inviting the NJ to his news conference or commenting for stories.”

According to an article by the News-Journal, a “contingent of media” was present at the conference.

The News-Journal was later left off the invite list for another conference on Feb. 29, 2024. The sheriff’s office had announced via social media that Chitwood would be holding a news conference the following day about a break in a 20-year-old missing persons investigation. But the newspaper said Chitwood’s media staff did not send it an announcement with details about the briefing, nor did they reply to emails and texts from reporters.

Two other Florida TV stations, WESH and WOFL, had news crews present at that briefing, but the paper said it was unclear how Chitwood communicated to them the time and place of the event.

The paper says the missing invitations are the result of a long-standing conflict between the daily paper and Chitwood that has also resulted in the Sheriff’s Office refusing to comment on any News-Journal stories.

Chitwood, in a series of Facebook posts going back to September, has been highly critical of News-Journal coverage of several high-profile criminal investigations.

In a Sept. 21 post, Chitwood wrote, “I don’t take Frank Fernandez’s calls or give him quotes for his BS stories anymore,” then added on Sept. 26, “This is nothing personal, strictly business, but the only real recourse I have is to unsubscribe from the News-Journal and quit commenting in it.”

News-Journal Executive Editor John Dunbar, in an opinion piece after the Sept. 21 Chitwood post, wrote, “The sheriff’s reaction is disturbing for a number of reasons. First, he’s falsely accusing an enormously dedicated and hard-working reporter of being one-sided and unprofessional. Nothing could be further from the truth. Second, his bullying behavior can lead to a chilling effect on anyone who dares to write something he doesn’t like. And third, he’s creating a scapegoat and invoking his followers to tell him ‘what they think.’ What happens if they respond with more than words?”

Chitwood’s derogatory comments continued, however. In a March 5 post regarding the Feb. 29 news conference, the sheriff wrote, “The Irrelevant Daytona Beach News-Journal smears my deputies, insults the law enforcement community, misleads the 5 readers it has left, and then cries foul when I quit responding. The News-Journal knew exactly when and where this press conference was, and they chose not to show up. If they did, I’d exercise my right to ignore their BS questions.”

The same day, Fernandez reported that Chitwood opted not to include The News-Journal in the news conference even though Gant told the Orlando Sentinel that if a News-Journal reporter shows up to a news event, they won’t be turned away. “The News-Journal has the same access to that as anybody else,” Gant said. “They just don’t have exclusive access.”

The sheriff’s office did not respond to an emailed request for comment.

Grace Nezkwesi, legal fellow at the First Amendment Foundation, was reported as saying she did not believe that Chitwood could exclude one media outlet while allowing others to attend the briefings. “It does sound like a chilling effect and a restraint on your organization’s First Amendment Rights,” she told the News-Journal.

“It’s a form of intimidation. I mean, he’s the sheriff. He’s a very powerful man and very popular in the county,” Dunbar told the U.S. Press Freedom Tracker.

Dunbar added that he was concerned that the decision could impact the News-Journal’s access to information regarding the upcoming hurricane season. “This is really an issue of public safety because we’re the newspaper of record,” Dunbar said. “We can’t be at odds.”

Editor’s Note: This story has been updated to include a comment from News-Journal Executive Editor John Dunbar.

The U.S. Press Freedom Tracker catalogues press freedom violations in the United States. Email tips to [email protected].