Sunday, May 13, 2007

Reporters Avoiding Perceptions of Conflict

Last week, I spoke with Eric Deggans, the media critic for the St. Petersburg Times, about the departure of Tampa Tribune reporter Michael Fechter to go to work for Steve Emerson, the "anti-terrorism crusader" he has been covering for many years.

As Deggans notes in his op-ed piece in today's paper, When reporters switch sides, Fechter was the "first Tampa Bay area reporter to allege former University of South Florida professor Sami Al-Arian had criminal links to the terrorist group Palestinian Islamic Jihad." The move raises questions among Islamic groups whether Fechter's work had an anti-Islamic bias.

The larger question Deggans and I talked about was the propriety of a reporter going to work directly from his job as a reporter to work for a figure he covered so prominently. The Tampa Tribune found the move troubling enough to ask Emerson to not delay his departure once he announced he was taking the job. (In Reporter's departure 'controversial', Tampa Tribune reporter Meg Laughlin quotes Janet Coats, the paper's executive editor: "Steven Emerson is controversial. Michael Fechter is controversial. That Michael is going to work for Steven is controversial. To put separation between them and the paper, we asked Michael to leave today, rather than wait.")

I told Eric that the "real problem is the perception whether or not all along you were jockeying for the position. ...It's not just that you have to be careful not to do something. It's the perception that you're fighting."

We continued to discuss whether news outlets should encourage departing reporters to avoid working with or for people they cover for at least a year, although we talked about how flawed that system seems to be working with former U.S. Congressman who find loopholes around such restrictions on lobbying.

But I also noted that reporters may already be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to public perception. Many in the general public assume the worst about journalists already. I told Eric about a Gallup poll on public perception of the most honest professions that came out just as I was beginning a new career as a college professor at Emerson College in 1999. I continued at the time to write a monthly version of my Right Thing ethics column for the Sunday New York Times Money & Business section. As my wife was double-parked outside my Emerson office building so I could unload some boxes, NPR reported that among the top 10 respected professions in the Gallup poll was college professors. Before I could feel too glib, it went on to report that among the bottom 10 was online journalists. Talk about a disconnect.

I was the same person regardless of whether I was in the classroom or on the pages or website of a newspaper, but apparently the public's perception of me changed depending on what they thought I did for a living. I wrote a column about it (The Right Thing: TELLING THE TRUTH, OR AT LEAST MOST OF IT) and wondered out loud to my wife how I'd introduce myself at cocktail parties if someone asked me what I did for a living. After pointing out that we didn't go to all that many cocktail parties, she wisely pointed out that the best course was full disclosure, but it didn't change the fact that the public's perception of journalists is not all that high, whether that perception is warranted or not.

Cases like Fechter's as Eric points out in his op-ed piece today raise some challenging questions for journalists. Sadly, they also give credence to what a large portion of the public believes about the profession and force the rest of us to examine how we would respond were we in Fechter's shoes.

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