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Conflicts Cloud How Audience Perceives Journalists

Apr 27, 2018

At a time when the public’s trust of the media is on the decline, some local and national journalists with potential conflicts of interest are finding themselves in the spotlight.

At the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, Lee Williams serves as a senior editor, while he also has a pro-gun website called The Gun Writer. Columns he writes about guns run in the paper and he hosts a weekly podcast.

His advocacy’s never been a secret. But his duties at the Herald-Tribune means he assigns and edits new stories that cross over to an area where he has a very public opinion.

In February, for example, he contributed to a news story about the Sarasota Sheriff’s idea to train retired cops and veterans as school security officers. The next day, he shared his opinion about it on his podcast - “Think. Aim. Fire.

“I think it’s a great idea, I couldn’t support it more. It’s proactive. I know you and the sheriff came up with this and this is a good time to put it out,” Williams said. “And it couldn’t be more topical. It couldn’t be more timely.”

Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark Chair for Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute, has a problem with Williams’ dual roles.

“This is basically Journalism 101," she said. “The whole point of being a news organization – if you say you are delivering unbiased, fair, impartial content - then your audience has to rest assured that the people involved in that news gathering do not have preconceived notions, particularly on controversial topics.”

Poynter recently published a story about Williams and conflicts. In it, Herald-Tribune Executive Editor Matthew Sauer said he isn’t worried about William’s news judgment, and said he also reviews nearly every local story the paper runs.

“We encourage people to be passionate about certain topics and to pursue it,” Sauer said. “Do I worry about it coloring his opinion of a certain topic? No. He is a professional.”

Lakshmanan said journalists are only as credible as the public perceives them to be, and recent polls by Poynter and other organizations show that trust in the media is low. She said that’s why it’s critical that all journalists clearly separate their work from any possible conflicts.

“It applies to any issue. In the same way you would not have someone who is a Planned Parenthood member or an abortion rights activist as an editor editing abortion coverage,” she said. “So first it’s about whether that person’s opinions are coloring the stories they are assigning.”

She said the same rules apply to Fox News host Sean Hannity, who failed to disclose personal real estate investments that benefited from support from the U.S. Department for Housing and Urban Development, according to The Guardian newspaper. Hannity praised the HUD secretary on air repeatedly. In addition, Hannity also didn’t tell the public that he’s a client of President Donald Trump’s attorney, a lawyer he also praised on air.

While Hannity doesn’t call himself a journalist because he’s paid for having an opinion, Lakshmanan said he still should declare conflicts and abide by the ethical guidelines set by his news organization.

“Sean Hannity appears on a news network. He’s as much a journalist as Rachel Maddow is, who is an opinion journalist host on MSNBC,” she said. “They may be opinion hosts and anchors, but they still are journalists.”