What is the role in public affairs of a newspaper like the Wichita Eagle? Can it wear more than one hat — making news as well as covering it?
This is not a hypothetical question.
Consider that Pam Siddall, president and publisher of the Wichita Eagle is a member of the steering council of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition, an important, partially tax-funded board, that plays a significant role in Wichita.
Should this make any difference to you?
When the Eagle’s editorial board grants the president of the Greater Wichita Economic Development Coalition space on its pages, should readers be aware of this connection? (Vicki Pratt Gerbino: Invest in recruiting, preserving area jobs, February 15, 2009 Wichita Eagle)
When the Eagle’s editorial blog writes a fawning post titled GWEDC crucial to attracting, retaining jobs, should readers be aware of this connection?
When Eagle reporters write a story that can be characterized as critical of anyone who questions the need for the GWEDC — the story starts with “The hard-won balance between the city, county and business leaders over economic development is wobbling a bit after some comments last week.” — should readers be aware of this connection? (See Sedgwick County commissioners question economic development funding, February 17, 2009 Wichita Eagle.)
The nature of the connection is that the Eagle is an “Investor” in the GWEDC, which means they contributed at least $5,000, at least some in the form of advertising. The Wichita Business Journal is also in the Investor class.
I asked the heads of the two organizations involved — Vicki Pratt Gerbino, president of the GWEDC, and Pam Siddall, publisher of the Wichita Eagle — if they thought there was potential for conflict of interest when a news organization covers an entity it has made contributions to. Ms. Gerbino said no, there’s no conflict of interest. Ms. Siddall said the same, citing the separate news and business functions at the Eagle.
In conversations I’ve had in the past with a few Eagle reporters, they’ve cited the “wall of separation” between the main functions of a newspaper, which are news, editorial, and the business of the newspaper.
But this wall may not be as tall and wide as it seems. In an excerpt from Knightfall: Knight Ridder and How the Erosion of Newspaper Journalism Is Putting Democracy At Risk, Davis Merritt, former editor of the Eagle writes “The notion of strict separation between the business and journalism functions of newspapers is relatively recent in terms of the whole of American newspaper history, and judging by current practice, it may be only a passing phase.”
It is difficult for an outsider to be able to know if the Eagle’s news and editorial judgments are influenced by its relationship with the GWEDC. That’s why people and organizations are often advised to avoid even the appearance of a conflict of interest.
Could the GWEDC survive without the publisher of the Eagle on its steering committee and without the Eagle’s financial contribution? I think they could. Then, without this connection, readers of the Eagle wouldn’t have to worry so much about the Eagle’s news and editorial independence.