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Journalism is a job, of course, but not just any job.
Like with teachers and police officers and politicians, journalists cannot function properly without public trust. They are obligated – by professional code – to act independently and avoid activities that might damage perceptions of credibility. Because once that trust is lost, it cannot be meaningfully regenerated.
Such foundational principles – outlined in the Society of Professional Journalist’s Code of Ethics – clashed with the curious recent news, reported by Civil Beat’s Chad Blair, that KHON had rehired Nestor Garcia to work in that company’s newsroom.
Civil Beat has reported in depth about Garcia’s transgressions as a Honolulu City Council member, including his record-breaking fines levied by the Honolulu Ethics Commission. In short, the Ethics Commission found that Garcia misused city resources and broke rules about disclosing conflicts of interest with his other job, as executive director of the Kapolei Chamber of Commerce. This was not a one-time slip; the commission noted more than 50 separate incidents.
I do not claim to know much about Garcia, or his work, and this column will not presume to judge his skill level or to tell KHON how to run its business. Yet it will outline reasons why this type of hire is troubling for journalism, as a field entrusted by the public, and especially should concern local news audiences.
Journalists in the United States do not have licenses, or specific training requirements. They simply operate on the basis of their integrity.
As the core credential, the journalist’s credibility level typically starts low and gradually grows over time – interview by interview, story by story, year after year. One mistake can blow it all, which is why most journalists so carefully protect their independence and guard against perceptions of conflicts of interest.
What makes Garcia’s hire so absurd is that he not only has been welcomed back to the newsroom – where concerns previously were raised over his coverage of his former colleagues on the Council and in the Legislature – his new role as assignment editor installs him as a behind-the-scenes string-puller at KHON as well as a role model for developing reporters at the station. He actually said: “I see my role as being a mentor to some of these young people.”
At this point, KHON has not publicly commented on its web site about his hire, and using the keywords “Nestor Garcia” in the site’s search bar only brings up his work from 2015 and earlier. At least when Garcia was an on-air reporter, audiences could judge his evolving/devolving credibility by what they saw on the screen.
In this new opaque role – a lack of transparency that raises similar concerns in my mind to the use of anonymous sources – we, as audience members, cannot identify, evaluate and analyze Garcia’s influences or conflicts of interest on KHON stories, because he will be a hidden actor. Where his influence starts or ends will be veiled from public view, and we are the worse for it. Albert Lanier in a recent Community Voice column on Civil Beat expressed some of those concerns, echoed by many commenters.
A commenter on the Blair story that broke this news, Robert F. Kay, argued that people “can’t blame him for wanting to work.”
True, but my retort would be that there are countless other ways for him to earn a living, even as a part of KHON, and, ultimately, this decision is not his to make but the responsibility of KHON’s management team – starting with General Manager Kristina Lockwood and News Director Lori Silva – to decide what role Garcia should play. If they like him and his work so much, maybe he would fit better in another role in the organization, possibly as a salesperson, or marketing director, or some other position in which the industry’s Code of Ethics doesn’t so clearly agitate against him. People might well deserve second, third, fourth, 53rd chances, for all sorts of reasons, just not in the role of acting as a journalist.
The SPJ code states, for example, under the heading “Act Independently,” that journalists should:
• “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Garcia cannot avoid or escape, at this point in his career, the perceptions of his numerous potential conflicts of interest. Therefore, his standing as a journalist has been irreparably compromised.
• “Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.” Garcia would be an extremely odd choice to mentor young journalists about this concept. Unless this is intended to be like a reintegration program, in which offenders get to share their sad stories, so other people don’t repeat their mistakes, Garcia again has no credibility on this topic.
• “Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.” Because of his past, every choice Garcia would make – again, all behind the scenes, without affording public scrutiny – would raise questions about his motivations, relating to his low journalistic credibility.
KHON, for its part, also is violating public trust and the professional code in this decision, through its silence on the matter. The code states: “Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”
Embedding Garcia back into this organization – in a behind-the-curtain role, without thorough public explanation and discourse – is not a constructive way to build trust and credibility in this media ecosystem. KHON, of course, can do whatever it wants with its business, and Garcia can pursue whatever job he desires.
Yet you, the reader/viewer of local news, also deserve to know who holds sway on the decisions of what you see. In this case, as long as Garcia remains in this puppet-master position, KHON should be viewed with high skepticism, and that skepticism should gradually increase the longer the company remains silent about its motivations and actions in this case.
Even if Garcia acts appropriately, all of the time, significant negative perceptions perpetually will exist about his journalistic integrity. In this respect, his credibility has been compromised in journalistic circles to what likely is an unsalvageable depth, and with this unneeded baggage, so goes KHON’s standing in the community.
Brett Oppegaard has a doctorate degree in technical communication and rhetoric. He studies journalism and media forms as an associate professor at the University of Hawaii Manoa, in the School of Communications. He also has worked for many years in the journalism industry. Comment below or email Brett at email@example.com.
Reader Rep is a media criticism and commentary column that is independent from Civil Beat’s editorial staff and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of Civil Beat.