In a coup for raising the standards of professional journalists (who are disappearing like dinosaurs after a giant meteorite hit), KSL’s News Director Sheryl Worsley (not apparently acting in her capacity as a KSL employee) sent an “ethics inquiry” to the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to complain about the Salt Lake Tribune’s publication of a biography on newly elected Mia Love.
Unauthorized by Mia Love or her campaign, the biography tells Love’s story, from her birth to Haitian immigrants through to election day on Tuesday November 6, 2014, and was written by Tribune reporters Matt Canham, Robert Gehrke, and Thomas Burr. (Read my review on the biography here).
After the book was published, it didn’t take long for naysayers to cry ‘foul.’
“This whole thing leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” said Bryan Schott, Managing Editor of UtahPolicy.com, on November 8. The Doug Owens campaign did not receive notice of the book until mid-October, he argued. “Probably because [the Salt Lake Tribune] didn’t want to jeopardize their access to Owens.”
That’s entirely possible…though more than a bit improbable given that the Tribune: A) was the first to break the stories about Mia Love’s problematic policy positions on federal student loans, B) had expressed concern about her depth of experience, and C) ultimately endorsed Doug Owens.
I just can’t see Owens cutting off access to the Tribune. The paper was his best asset in the race.
In the email from Worsley to Andrew M. Seaman, who covers ethics at SPJ, Worsley refers him to the book and asks question relating to the appropriateness of writing a biography on a candidate.
Please review the following link: http://www.sltrib.com/news/1793432-155/love-com-mia-iframe-www-tribune
A newspaper or any other journalistic entity writing a biography about a politician raises some key questions which need to be answered. Should a journalistic entity write a biography for a candidate? Mia Love was criticized for changing her position on federal student loans and the eliminating the Department of Education. Did the Tribune pursue that story with vigor or were they worried about upsetting Mia and messing up their book deal? Who requested the biography? Was it Mia’s campaign or the Tribune’s idea? Will the reporters be paid for their book? When did the Tribune disclose they were writing a biography about Mia? Why are they holding it until after the election?
Final judgment should be withheld until after we see what is in the book, but some of these questions won’t be answered in its pages. We are the in the process of reading it now. The initial pages indicate the Tribune reporters convinced Love to do the story, so it was their idea and that they agreed to protect some anonymous sources.
I find this disturbing. I wondered your thoughts. Please let me know if you have any insights.
Thanks. -Sheryl Worsley
Past President, Utah Headliners
Seaman, who has not read the book, responded:
Thanks again for the email.
I don’t think I can make any specific statements unless I read the book.
In general, you do raise appropriate concerns. Additionally, I wonder when the process of the book began. If the paper put considerable resources into writing the book before the election, they would appear to have a vested interest in her winning. For example, how many people would buy the book if the candidate lost. Also, as you mention, did the paper disclose that it was publishing a book in their other reporting?
Either way, journalists should avoid conflicts of interest – real or perceived.
It’s an interesting scenario. I wonder if other news organizations may move in this direction to raise revenue.
Let me know if I can be of any more assistance!
Pretty blasé an answer to an ethics inquiry.
Despite these communications, or maybe because of them, we are left with these remaining issues:
- Worsley issued her complaint before reading the book. I wonder if she’ll be as concerned after she has finished her reading.
- It appears that Worsley may be misrepresenting to Seaman, or assuming more than she knows, for whom the book was being written and at whose request. To my knowledge, the book was not “for” candidate Love, nor did she easily acquiesce to interviews. Rather, she had to be persuaded to sit down to talk. From my reading of the book, it’s clear that she only gave limited quotes and in all cases the authors were willing to fact check and present conflicting facts when they arose. In all likelihood, the campaign recognized the potential liability of giving access to the press outlet that had been most critical of her policies, campaigning, and qualifications for office, but gave access anyway.
- Worsley raises the issue of student loans and questions the “vigor” with which the Tribune pursued that story. A quick search shows that on Tribune’s site are 172 stories about Mia Love and student loans, while KSL’s site has only 96 stories.
- It appears that the Tribune broke the story about Mia Love’s positions and comments on student loans first, as well as that of Love wanting to end federally subsidized student loans.
- This, too: the Tribune was also the first to break that Mia Love had paid off her student loans during the campaign.
- A video of the press scrum after the Fourth Congressional District Debate by the Utah Debate Commission shows Love getting testy with Matt Canham, the main author on the book, when he calls her out on the issue. I would be interested to know whether Worsley, or anyone else, sees any evidence of the Tribune’s reporters pulling their punches.
- Seaman agrees that there are potential journalistic conflicts in the process in which the book began. Further, at least on the face of it, it could be argued the Tribune had a vested interest in the outcome of the race. If they did–and maybe they did–it’s hard to see how the Tribune acted on it. The paper endorsed Doug Owens, rerunning the endorsement just days before the election.
- Seaman agrees that journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real and perceived. If this is the case, it is possible that the optimal outcome would have been to wait until after the race was over, or to disclose the intent to write the book to both Love and Owens early in the process. Does the failure to do so diminish the value of the book? Not in the slightest. In the balance, the value to the public is much higher than the potential harm to either candidate. See the previous point for whether Owens was harmed by the Tribune’s reporting during the case.
- Seaman seems to suggest that publishing books on their reporting–or working on books on the subject of the reporting–is a direction that other journalists may take to raise revenue in the future. In other words, get with the times, Worsley. Yes, reporters should avoid conflicts of interest, but they gotta eat, too. And, really, this doesn’t seem to be that bad of an idea. Quite the contrary.