Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Ethics smethics - a news reporter becomes a news maker

The actions of The Monument newspaper Editor Elizabeth Prata over the past year show that a news reporter has become a news maker.

Starting with an email dated Dec. 17, 2004, in which she pointed out to Town Council member Gary Foster several apparent errors in the proposed Town of Gray budget, Prata steps beyond the ethical bounds spelled out by the Society of Professional Journalists. Prata has said in the past that she follows the ethics code of the SPJ.

The ethical code presented by the SPJ is voluntary, and many newspapers have created their own ethics guidelines. Such guidelines are used by writers and editors in determining when their reporting goes beyond mere statement of facts and into the realm of news creation.

Under the heading of “Seek Truth and Report It”, the SPJ states that journalists should “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent
error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.”

SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill said in a telephone interview that it is acceptable for a reporter to make a statement of fact to a source and ask that source if the statement is accurate. “It’s a method I use myself,” he said.

However, Prata never requests a response from Foster in her December e-mail, leaving the appearance that she is providing information to Foster. In providing this information but not stating so in articles about the budget, Prata gives the appearance she is attempting to influence Foster. In its code of ethics, the SPJ admonishes its members to “Act Indpendently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

Hill said there is no discipline of membership for violations of the code.

The New York Times recently struggled with a similar issue when a reporter failed to fully reveal her notes relating to the public release of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame’s name.

At a Town Council meeting in October, Foster said the newest Community Economic Development Committee member Jeanne Adams would be giving the town council a report on the town website.

Adams runs Gray Dove Printing on Main Street and shares office space with Prata, as well as helping to layout The Monument. She also writes and takes photographs for The Monument.

The council members discussed resurrecting the town website committee with a single member who recently volunteered to take on the task of revising the site, Michael Salvetti. He is Prata’s ex-husband.

After discussion among the council members, Denise Duda said she would take on the task of creating a charge for the website committee. Duda worked for Prata as an intern for three months early in 2005. She completed her internship before her election to the town council in June.

Prata sent an email to the town council members on Aug. 3 in which she found fault with Berkowitz for the use of the photograph that is presently found on the home page of the newly-updated site. She started the email with the words, “I am speaking as a citizen of the town of Gray.” But her email was signed “Elizabeth Prata, The Monument Newspaper.”

The use of that particular signature on her email, along with the recent presentation of the website report by her associate and the volunteering of her ex-husband to be on the website committee, clearly shows a conflict of interest.

The SPJ’s ethics code states journalists should “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

Adams was emphatic in her assertion that the website report was her own creation. She said no one helped her write the report. The home-page photograph received only a one-line mention in Adam’s report.

Ethics smethics.

Nathan Tsukroff