Disclosure in Mining Story Wasn't Enough
Down East magazine got it wrong.
The parent publication of this Web site, which pays me to critique the Maine media, is guilty of exercising poor judgment. Down East made a mistake in choosing the reporter who wrote the story in the July issue on the controversy surrounding legislation to allow mining on Bald Mountain in Aroostook County.
Let me be clear. Jeff Clark, the author in question, has a solid pedigree as a journalist with deep knowledge of the state’s environmental issues. The article itself is well written and carefully researched. I’ve followed this issue closely for several months, and I still found lots of new information in this piece. If there’s any evidence of bias in what was printed, I didn’t notice it.
The problem is that Clark is no longer just a journalist. As a disclaimer at the end of the story notes, he’s also a board member of Maine Rivers, an environmental group that actively opposed the mining bill.
I think that’s more of a conflict than can be overcome with a simple disclaimer. This situation strikes me as uncomfortably close to that of then-Bangor Daily News reporter Eric Russell, who was assigned last year to cover the growing controversy at the Maine State Housing Authority, even though his father worked there. The Bangor paper’s editors initially attempted to get around that ethical dilemma with a disclaimer, but eventually came to their senses and used other reporters to cover the conflict.
In one significant way, assigning Clark to this story is even more ethically suspect than having Russell cover the housing authority, since the former is an acknowledged advocate for one point of view in the controversy, and the latter was not. Nevertheless, both cases called their respective publications’ credibility into question.
Paul Doiron, Down East’s editor, said he was aware of Clark’s involvement in the issue before he asked him to write the story. In an email, Doiron said he thinks the disclosure at the end of the piece is sufficient to alleviate any ethical concerns.
“Jeff did disclose his associations to us beforehand,” Doiron wrote. “And it was important that we include a formal disclosure so readers who want to disregard his reporting because of his board membership can do so. But I think the article was fairly reported, with sufficient space given to arguments in favor of the law. It also happens to reflect our editorial position that the mining law is a travesty. It doesn't shade any facts to make its points. The details speak for themselves. So I wouldn't change my decision.”
Doiron goes on to say that the “Talk of Maine” section, where Clark’s article appeared has always been a space for advocacy journalism, an assertion that may come as a surprise to many of the magazine’s readers. He cited past “Talk of Maine” pieces on egg baron Jack DeCoster and the LePage administration’s attempt to roll back environmental regulations as examples. But neither of those stories was written by someone actively involved in the disputes being covered. And while the DeCoster piece by contributing editor Colin Woodard referred to its subject as the “wickedest businessman Maine has ever produced,” that claim is adequately backed up by the legal record. The regulatory piece, also by Woodard, contained hard-hitting criticism from opponents of the governor’s plans, but bent over backwards to provide supportive views, even though the LePage administration refused comment. If it was advocacy journalism, it wasn’t easy to figure out exactly what it was advocating.
But even if most readers realize “Talk of Maine” is expressing an editorial view that might be slanted, that still doesn’t excuse the odd decision to have an advocate for one side write the mining piece. It merely opens up the information in the article to questions that wouldn’t otherwise have been raised and to concerns about what might have been left out.
Down East should have known this was an unsuitable arrangement and taken a pass.
Al Diamon can be emailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.