(Updated 8:00 pm on 11-2-14. See below)
Just days before Michigan’s midterm elections, MLive ran two articles from “guest writers” which overtly favor Gov. Snyder — a journalistic breach that casts a dark shadow over their professional ethics, and brings into question a more serious matter as to whether one of them is a violation of Michigan’s campaign finance law.
Both read like campaign ads for Gov. Snyder — so much so, that they could easily have had the “paid for by” disclosure at the bottom. Appearing as ordinary columns — the only place which hints as to their true nature is in the url (web address), where the word “opinion” appears:
The first guest piece was penned by a Snyder appointee, Dan Wyant, the Director of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. In a gushing homage to the governor over his environmental record, Wyant extolls his many virtues:
[T]he Snyder Administration has invested hundreds of millions of dollars into thoughtful, common-sense improvements that will pay off huge for Michigan’s water, air and land quality – today and in the years ahead.
The Snyder Administration did what several previous administrations could not do – address Michigan’s dead-last status among Great Lakes states for residential recycling. Forging an alliance among key interests, Governor Snyder produced a plan to double Michigan’s residential recycling rate in just two years, and secured $1 million to seed the effort.
The column concludes with:
Michigan residents deserve to know that Rick Snyder’s fearless, common-sense approach to challenges has delivered big gains for the natural resources we all recognize as the state’s crown jewels.
The legal questions are many: Was this written on the state’s dime?– at taxpayer expense? Was it submitted to MLive using state resources? Was it written in the director’s official capacity? If not, where is the expected disclaimer?
The questions surrounding the journalistic ethics of the Wyant column are equally disturbing.
The MLive Media Group, a division of Booth Newspapers, has broad reach across lower Michigan, with online readership extending well beyond the state’s borders. Last week, their editorial board endorsed Gov. Snyder, which is fine and proper — as it was clearly intended as an opinion piece.
Not so, the Wyant column, where he is titled a “guest writer.”
The Society of Professional Journalists official Code of Ethics has several provisions which expressly discourage, if not outright prohibit, this kind of “guest column” — primarily because it is not clearly labeled as an opinion piece, but also owing to it creating the appearance of an impropriety. Additionally, this kind of commentary, dressed-up as an article, is especially troubling appearing so close to an election.
The code calls on journalists to:
- Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
- Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
- Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
- Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
- Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
Just hours after the Wyant piece was published, incumbent Rep. Lisa Posthumus Lyons (R-86), chair of the Michigan House Committee on Education, penned a similarly glowing report as a “guest writer” to MLive in praise of Snyder’s policies. She promoted many of the same points that the editorial board had cited as reason to re-elect Snyder, including a lower unemployment rate, job growth, tax reform and a “fairer” pension tax.
Bonnie Bucqueroux, a faculty member at the MSU School of Journalism and a pioneer of online journalism in Michigan, expressed surprise and concern over the “guest columns”, finding the DEQ director’s piece the more disturbing of the two — with it leaving “so many unanswered questions.” Acknowledging that journalism is evolving with technology, Bucqueroux has long “argued that the web has changed the ethical standards that all people should be able to comment as long as the person’s situation is clear and transparent”, adding that in this case she is “concerned the author’s situation is not clear and transparent.”
This isn’t the first time Booth Newspapers has crossed the line with an election impropriety. In 2008, the day before the presidential election, they caused an uproar over delivering papers wrapped in an advertising circular paid for by the National Rifle Association, with the words: “Defend Freedom, Defeat Obama” printed on the outside.
The simple solution here would seem to be to clearly mark these “guest columns” as opinion pieces. However, there is some question as to whether it is even appropriate to publish lengthy opinions advocating for a particular candidate or position without reciprocating with the same opportunity for those with opposing points of view. As a former campaign manager, I am well aware of the rules most media outlets follow in the run-up to an election. To avoid the appearance of bias, they carefully govern what kinds of opinions are allowed, and when.
That’s a question for the MLive editorial board to ponder.
In the case of the Wyant piece though, a dark cloud remains hanging over the origins of his remarks. Perhaps an MLive reporter would care to tackle that question.
UPDATE: A reader (also named Amy) contacted Democracy Tree with the following information — regarding her submission of an op-ed dated Oct. 16th to the MLive editor. She was told by MLive, on Oct. 24th, that they had decided not to run any more pro-candidate op-eds.
The two “guest columns’ were published on Oct. 31st. So, there’s no way they can retroactively call them opinion pieces. See below:
Please find the Amy Hunter op-ed MLive refused to run at Eclectablog, by clicking HERE.