We suppose if you really want to get your news straight from the source, one way to do so would be to let your government officials write the news for you.
That was the case in the March 2 edition of the Sauk Prairie Star, when Contributing Writer Donna Stehling wrote a front-page news story about the Great Sauk Trail Commission’s Feb. 23 meeting in Sauk City.
Left unreported in the article was the fact that Stehling, a Sauk County Board member from Sauk City, also sits on the Great Sauk Trail Commission. Stehling sat immediately to the left of Sauk County Board Chair Marty Krueger, who also chairs the commission, as he provided updates on the project to convert an unused rail line through Sauk Prairie into a recreational trail.
University of Wisconsin-Madison Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Culver said the blurring of lines between public official and newspaper reporter raises ethical concerns.
“There are all sorts of levels where we might have problems here,” Culver said. “I would be concerned about any money going from the paper to a county board member.”
Stehling said Sauk Prairie Star Editor Erin Vander Weele was on vacation at the time and the paper needed the story.
“The Eagle was there, but there was nobody there for the Star,” she said about media coverage. “It was basic. I just wanted to get some basic stuff out there.”
Stehling regularly writes for the Star and said she often gets paid for her contributions, though not always.
“I submit my story, but I don’t submit an invoice,” she said. “I get paid for some articles. Not all are printed.”
Vander Weele could not be reached for comment.
Other than several reports that were provided during the meeting, the only official action taken was a vote to approve the minutes from a previous meeting and a vote to adjourn.
Even so, it’s difficult to take statements in the article at face value when Stehling has a clear stake in the public’s perception of action taken by her commission.
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“The good news is the WDNR and DOT signed a written commitment to work together on this trail,” the article states.
Given Stehling’s dual role in the matter, it’s hard to know whether that’s good news for the commission, the county board, Stehling’s constituents, the newspaper’s readers or the county’s taxpayers.
Culver said newspaper reporters should strive to remain as independent as possible while avoiding conflicts of interest so they can be fair when bringing relevant information to the attention of readers.
“It’s always better to err on the side of disclosure and make readers aware of any potential entanglements and biases,” she said.
When asked about the article, Stehling said she “probably should have” included a disclosure about her role on the commission.
“I did it late at night,” she said. “Mostly I was just glad I got it done.”
Culver said a disclosure in the news story about the reporter’s role as a member of the commission may have helped, but the arrangement still raises an ethical problem.
“A public official being compensated for providing news content for a publication is just not a place that we can be,” Culver said.
We know all too well that community newspapers like the Star and Eagle have small staffs and limited resources. We do all we can to cover everything possible for our readers. It can be tempting to accept content from lots of places just to have something from a local event. Even so, there still must be a clear separation between journalists and the public officials they cover.
While Eagle Reporter Autumn Luedke, who also covered the meeting as a reporter, said Stehling’s report was factually accurate, ethical breaches such as this harm the credibility of the entire industry.
We understand this message is likely to be seen by many readers as self-serving. However, recent events in Sauk County government reinforce that an independent and objective local press is as important now as it ever was. We hope the decision to publish Stehling’s news story merely was an oversight by the local newspaper.