The long, splashy article focused on the ongoing redevelopment of Cincinnati’s Over-the-Rhine neighborhood and the central role of the Cincinnati Center City Development Corp. (3CDC) in helping it occur since the organization began its efforts in 2004.
As noted in the article, the creation of new apartments, condominiums and retail space happened during a period in which the housing bubble burst in 2007 and the Great Recession struck in 2008.
Nevertheless, progress marched on and 3CDC has bought 200 buildings and 169 vacant parcels in the blocks south of Liberty Street and north of Central Parkway. As a result, Cincinnati is the envy of historic preservationists and developers in other cities, where such efforts have stalled due to the economic downturn.
That’s not a bad premise for a news article, except for a couple of glaring omissions.
First, although the article contained more than 1,900 words, it could only find space for 125 that were critical of 3CDC’s effort. (To help readers who are bad at math, that equates to about 1/16th of the article.)
Even those 125 words, however, don’t include a direct quote from a critic; rather, they are a quote from a 3CDC spokeswoman explaining why she believes some common complaints about the organization aren’t valid.
The second omission, though, is worse and might explain why the article even appeared at all. Nowhere in the story did it mention the salient fact that Enquirer Publisher Margaret Buchanan, the top boss at the newspaper, sits on 3CDC’s executive committee. Moreover, Buchanan is in charge of overseeing publicity and marketing efforts for the organization.
That is an item that’s conspicuous by its absence. It’s entirely reasonable for readers to expect that such an association would be revealed in an in-depth article about 3CDC. It’s also reasonable for readers to ask whether the boss lady’s appointment would influence how the article was prepared and presented by her underlings, but they’re left blissfully unaware of the connection.
Sadly, this isn’t the first time that The Enquirer has chosen to leave this fact out of a front-page article praising 3CDC.
A similar piece was published in April 2009; that lengthy article focused on 3CDC’s efforts and was filled with quotes about progress in the neighborhood.
Then there was the January 2010 essay written by then-Editor Tom Callinan titled, “Now, not soon, is the time to save OTR’s historic treasures.” Yet again, Buchanan’s ties were curiously absent.
The Enquirer is owned by The Gannett Co., which is the largest U.S. newspaper publisher as measured by total daily circulation. Its 82 daily newspapers, including USA Today, reach 11.6 million readers on weekdays and 12 million readers on Sundays.
It’s no wonder, then, that Gannett has guidelines about how it should ethically conduct its news-gathering operations. The firm issued the latest round of guidelines in June 1999, and a large portion of them are aimed at avoiding conflicts of interest.
In fact, Section One of the guidelines includes a segment titled, “Maintaining Independence.” It includes the following statements, all of which sound pretty adamant:
** We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report.
** We will maintain an impartial, arm’s length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.
** We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.
** We will be free of improper obligations to news sources, newsmakers and advertisers.
** We will differentiate advertising from news.
Damn, that sounds mighty impressive.
Later in Section Two, in a segment titled, “Being Independent,” it states, “When unavoidable personal or business interests could compromise the newspaper’s credibility, such potential conflicts must be disclosed to one’s superior and, if relevant, to readers.”
For good measure, the guidelines continue in a later segment to state that editors should “protect against being manipulated by advocates and special interests.”
As we learned under the George W. Bush administration in regard to environmental laws and financial regulations, such safeguards mean little if they’re not enforced.
With that in mind, CityBeat emailed both Buchanan and Laura Dalton, Gannett’s senior manager for corporate communications and asked a few questions.
Specifically, we asked the pair if the April 15 article constituted a conflict of interest for The Enquirer. Also, CityBeat asked if they thought sufficient space was given to dissenting voices. Finally, we asked them if Buchanan’s position on 3CDC’s executive committee should’ve been disclosed in the article, particularly in light of Gannett’s ethics guidelines.
To date, we haven’t received any response.
It’s likely Gannett would back Buchanan and her decisions no matter what, because it’s clear she is a rising star in the media company. Since joining Gannett in 1986, Buchanan has won the company’s President’s Ring 10 times and was named Gannett’s top publisher in 2008.
Buchanan sits on the boards of other organizations, too, including the University of Cincinnati, the Cincinnati Business Committee, the Marvin Lewis Community Fund and the Fine Arts Fund.
There’s been a long debate in journalism circles over the years about whether publishers and owners should be involved with civic organizations that wield influence over the region and politicians their newspapers cover. The answer varies depending on who is asked.
One thing that’s generally agreed upon is that more information is better than less, and disclosure covers a multitude of sins. It’s time for a little more transparency from Maggie and The Enquirer.