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Avoiding the Appearance of Bias, Writing for the Web and Local 'Non-Believers' Get Noticed

By Ben L. Kaufman · August 4th, 2009 · On Second Thought

The New York Mets rarely make news in Cincinnati, but a recent stink reveals a conflict of interest that affects all mainstream news media: reporters looking for work with the people we cover.

This particular brouhaha involves New York Daily News Adam Rubin, who covers the Mets. It began at a press conference when Mets General Manager Omar Minaya complained about some of Rubin’s recent stories.

Minaya suggested Rubin’s critical stories arose from Rubin’s “lobbying” for a job in player development for a couple years. Rubin, who was covering the news conference, told Minaya that his accusation was “despicable.”

Later, Rubin told The New York Times that he had asked Operations Manager Tony Bernazard and Mets CEO Jeff Wilpon about how one gets started in the development end of baseball. “I’m 35 years old,” Rubin said, suggesting that he couldn’t be blamed for exploring industries other than the economically endangered field of journalism. Rubin insisted the conversations had been superficial and CEO Wilpon suggested they could talk about it sometime, but it didn’t happen.

Even so, Rubin created a conflict of interest and opened himself and his paper to accusations of bias.

The catch is that reporters and the people we cover talk about jobs, careers and the like. It’s what people with shared interests do, especially after years of familiarity.

It’s what comes next that risks the appearance or reality of conflict of interest and erodes the public interest in uncompromised reporting.

It’s not a Big City problem. Cincinnati is sprinkled with former reporters doing public relations for people they covered: teams, companies, public bodies, etc. Other reporters, inclined to see evil in every human enterprise, often wonder if these former colleagues pulled their punches rather than piss off people for whom they might someday work.

A more charitable explanation is that it often makes sense to hire a congenial, knowledgeable journalist familiar with local news media to do your public relations. That’s especially true if the people doing the hiring frequently are in the news.

Generally, there are two ways a conflict of interest can arise: Reporters ask about a job or the people they cover ask the reporter to switch sides.

It can be more troubling if the reporter — as Rubin and The Daily News learned — initiates the conversation. People being approached might encourage the reporter to win more favorable coverage or avoid a hostile response to rejection.

It could mitigate the damage if a reporter tells his editor that he’s approached people on their beat about a job. If the reporter is hired, that could end it. If the reporter doesn’t get the new job, an editor should consider a new assignment to avoid bias or the appearance of bias in subsequent stories.

Where it gets messy is when the editor learns from someone else that the reporter is seeking a job with people he covers.

No editor or broadcaster likes being the last to know, especially if their paper or station can be compromised.

If the people being covered initiate the conversation, a reporter should tell the editor immediately. If the reporter leaves, well and good. If not, the situation is less fraught than if the reporter’s initiative is rejected.

In 50 years, I can’t think of anyone whom I covered who wanted me to do their public relations. Long ago, the Minnesota Symphony, about which I hadn’t written, approached me about a job. I told my immediate editor at The Minneapolis Star. His boss came over to my desk, told me the symphony had run the offer past him first and asked, “What do you know about music?” Nothing, I said, but the money was too good to ignore and I was a quick study.

“What do you want to do?”

“Be a good reporter.”

He asked that I wait a day before responding to the symphony. I’m glad I did. His counteroffer was generous and I stayed at the paper.

Curmudgeon Notes

• Exhausted by Members of Parliament who lie, cheat and steal but lacking governors who lie to the voters, cheat on their wives and steal moments of passion, the British press have discovered a new summer camp for youngsters who are atheists, agnostics or humanists. Called Camp Quest, it’s made The Economist and at least two major national London dailies.

That’s news here because Northern Kentucky lawyer Edwin Kagin and his wife, Helen, are credited with the idea. It began in the mid-1990s and now has six U.S. sites, including Southwest Ohio, all with the motto, “It’s beyond belief.”

Kagin told The Daily Mail that Camp Quest originates in the Boy Scouts of America rejection of young atheists. The Scout oath, among other rituals, begins, “On my honor, I will do my best, to do my duty, to God and my country…”

Kagin said, “I wanted to give nonbelievers a chance.”

He told The Mail that his most uplifting camp moment involved a girl, 11, who said she’d learned “it is OK not to believe in God.” Kagin said, “I found that so moving. She had never before known that. It strengthens these children. This is the first time they’ve been able to talk about not believing. Some are so relieved they cry.”

The Brits live in tents, sit around camp fires and do what other kids do at summer camps. Instead of a Snipe Hunt, however, there is “Hunt the Unicorn.” And, The Mail says, the hymn of choice is John Lennon’s “Imagine,” which begins, “Imagine there’s no heaven…”

• Is another round of firings coming at The Enquirer, a reprise of a previous Christmas Surprise? More than one current and former employee has suggested that might be unavoidable if Gannett continues to demand budget cuts and there is nothing left but people.

• metromix, Gannett’s replacement of Cin Weekly, still features Bright Young Things leaning against each other and smiling at the camera. It also maintains a popular local journalistic myth: Clifton is everything between Central Parkway and Mitchell Avenue. When the reviewer of a new eatery in University Heights got it right, the editor called it Clifton on Page 1. Nope. Calhoun Street is not Clifton. That’s why a sign there says “University Heights.”

The Enquirer will continue to update this story. The web story says it was last updated at 5:21 a.m. Thursday. I read it online at 11:31 a.m. Friday. So much for updating, but it raises a question: Is there a different standard for web-based stories? Do the 5 Ws not apply (who, what, when, where, why)? In print, that story would have reported time and day of the accident. Online, I had to read the whole screen to deduce the day; it wasn’t in the story.

I understand “write for the web, update for the paper,” but an editor chose to leave out the day/date. On Friday, the headline still read: “Accident closes I-71 near Downtown.” As a reader, skimming The Enquirer web site for news I can use, I would have been misinformed.

• It’s embarrassing when someone hands you a great story, you don’t see it and the competition scoops you. In a recent column, Boston Globe’s Yvonne Abraham explained how both happened to her. It began with the arrest of Harvard academic Henry Louis Gates Jr. in suburban Boston. Abraham called Cambridge police “dunderheaded.”

Abusive emails poured in. One, from Boston cop Justin Barrett, didn’t stand out “until news broke that his email to me had gotten him suspended,” sorrowful Abraham writes. In it, the cop compares Gates to a “banana-eating jungle monkey.” Proud of his message, Barrett shared the email with friends and colleagues. The story of his email first appeared in The Boston Herald. “It was an anonymous rant,” Abraham recalled, and she didn’t read that far.

• Will the news media stop referring to “government money” or federal, state, county or city money? Can you imagine how news stories would read or sound if they referred to “taxpayer money” when they talked about spending?

• Will Washington press courtiers, panting for on-camera first name recognition by the president, use their moment in the sun to ask, “Mr. President, how will health insurance reform guarantee health care?” Health insurance reform won’t reduce crippling indebtedness for medical education, produce enough primary care physicians, allocate doctors according to public need or assure people in inner cities and rural areas that they’ll have medical care at any price.

CONTACT BEN L. KAUFMAN: editor@citybeat.com



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