Proceed cautiously, Salt Lake Tribune, but please proceed

Proceed cautiously, Salt Lake Tribune, but please proceed
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Others here have already done a magnificent job of reviewing Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star, and the questions its publication raised over conflicts of interest and journalistic ethics.  Before digging into those questions, let me say I purchased the book the minute it was announced and read it over the following weekend.  I highly recommend it to anyone interested not just in this campaign and the candidates, but Utah politics and campaigns in general.  It tells an engaging personal and political story of Mia Love and doesn’t shy away from her contradictions, the “crafting” of a candidate, and the risks (taken, and not) of one of those rarest of things in Utah, a competitive campaign.

On Monday, having finished the book, I had the opportunity to interview Robert Gehrke on KVNU’s For the People (listen, here) and ask him about researching and the decision to write the book with Thomas Burr and Matt Canham, as well as some of the earliest questions of ethics.  Is there a conflict of interest for reporters writing a book that would arguably sell better if Love wins while simultaneously covering the campaign?  Gehrke response was heartening.  He said this is a very legitimate question, one they weren’t blind to, but challenged anyone to find evidence of the Tribune’s election coverage pulling punches or displaying a bias.  Personally, he said, his favorite response was by Holly Richardson, a person you could say is personally connected to most of the players the book involves, and even Love herself.  Richardson praised the book as an “uncomfortable” read.  No punches pulled.  Gehrke said that was often a sign you’d done a good job, as a journalist.

Gehrke and Burr also discussed the decision and timing and process of writing the book in this TribTalk episode everyone concerned should take time to watch.

Utah Policy’s Bryan Schott said the whole thing “leaves a bad taste in my mouth,” and criticized the authors for not telling Love’s opponent, Democrat Doug Owens, they were writing it until mid-October.  Schott wondered publicly if the late announcement was due to concern they’d lose access to the Owens campaign.  I doubt this was a major concern.  Could either candidate afford to turn down Salt Lake Tribune coverage in a race?  Both camps knew it was going to be close.  Owens also had their endorsement.  Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams asked directly about a conflict of interest on Twitter, and Burr responded.

Yesterday, UPH broke news of an ethics complaint filed with SPJ by KSL’s Sheryl Worsley, without having read the book.  She raises several questions.  Was the book written for the Tribune or for the Love campaign?  Who gets paid and how?  Why hold it until after the election?  She calls the book publication “disturbing.”  The complaint reads both as list of legitimate concerns, and sour grapes, which is unfortunate.  She asks the ultimate question first (then buries her own lede): Should a journalistic entity write a biography for a candidate?  Absolutely, no.  But objection, your honor, irrelevant, would the prosecution like to rephrase the question?

Should a journalistic entity write a biography about a candidate?

“Is there an informative story to tell?”

“Yes.”

“Well, then isn’t that, quite literally, your job?”

Books about candidates written by journalists or outlets also covering the campaign is not at all new nationally.  But it is new in Utah.  It’s a sticky, tricky situation for a news organization to delve into, and there are plenty of lines that can (and have, before) been crossed.  But blanket objection to publications like this are only reactionary.  What about sponsored content barely separated from news stories at online outlets?  What about non-disclosure of an editorial writer’s ties to the industry he/she is writing about?  What about editorial influence of owners and investors over what does and doesn’t see print?  These are also very legitimate concerns and legitimate ethical risks.  Anytime models change, or an organization steps outside of the traditional boundaries of job descriptions, there is potential for abuse, and a responsibility to proceed cautiously.  Issues of journalistic integrity should weigh heavily in the public mind, especially as newspapers and television news grapple with new funding models and reporting in the hyper speeds of digital environments.

But I think what Gehrke, Canham, and Burr have shown us is that there is interest in both writing and reading longer form reporting as an extension of what the Tribune already offers, and that even when there is a potential for conflict of interest, it can be handled carefully and ethically.  And they showed us people are tuned in and paying attention when it comes to Utah’s media.  The vigilance surprises and inspires.  I thought everyone was asleep!

I hope the Salt Lake Tribune continues to proceed cautiously, and I hope everyone continues to raise concerns about our local media in general, not just in these higher profile cases.  But I hope they do proceed.  Mia Love: The Rise, Stumble and Resurgence of the Next GOP Star told an informative and engaging story in which I learned a lot about not just Love herself, but how she became congresswoman-elect, with no storytelling punches pulled.  Warts and all.  Compelling reading.

You can’t disregard the value of that.

 

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