Oahu Publications not only owns the biggest media source in the state, The Honolulu Star-Advertiser, it also has an extensive collection of other local media, including The Hawaii Tribune-Herald, West Hawaii Today, The Garden Island newspaper, StreetPulse and MidWeek, which is mailed to virtually every Oahu household on Wednesdays.
I often skim through that free tabloid, which has some good local columns, but it was the “News Flash: It’s Digital” cover story last month that really struck me with its strangeness.
To begin with, I’ve been looking for the addition of television screens to newspaper racks around town, as promised, to see if that idea is as silly as it sounds in practice. I’m also curious about the technical aspects of how content will be updated daily, how all of the day’s news will be condensed into a 1-minute loop and how exactly the Big Brotherish “SiteView” technology will capture “demographic data of screen viewers, such as age and gender.” A television mounted in a public place that looks at — and analyzes — people as they are walking by? That seems like the real news here.
Beyond all of that, though, I was perplexed about how one Oahu Publications’ media channel could so shamelessly shill for another, without adhering to any pretense of journalistic standards.
This strange article, written by Susan K. Sunderland, makes many unwarranted claims, such as this trial “proves” the Star-Advertiser “can remain atop the information revolution by delivering news in a cool, novel way.”
Proof, before trial, is quite an accomplishment indeed, and the evidence provided for the product’s level of innovation is a single and anonymous customer, who “remarks,” in present tense, “This is very cool.”
Sunderland even wrote that the launch of the product was “without much fanfare,” except, I suppose, this massive MidWeek cover story and full two-page spread, plus the coverage within the Star-Advertiser itself.
The most dishonest paragraph in the piece, though, had to be the one in which Oahu Publications is credited as being the parent company of the Star-Advertiser, and as Hawaii’s largest media “entity,” but not given credit for being the owner and publisher of MidWeek, where the reader is receiving this story.
I tried to reach Executive Editor Bill Mossman by phone and emails to ask him about this article but also about MidWeek’s adherence (or not) to a journalistic code of ethics. He did not reply by my deadline, but if he does later, I’ll post his feedback in the reader comments section below.
Journalism is a system built entirely on credibility, and journalists have to have high ethos to survive. So when I see a case like this, I first wonder what the foundation of that credibility is within the particular organization.
Many media sources in the country are founded upon a code of ethics, such as the one established by the Society of Professional Journalists or other like-minded organizations. The fundamental idea with a code is to transparently inform readers or listeners or viewers how journalists work, and within what parameters, so questionable cases can be compared to professional standards and protocols. Some also even hire news ombudsmen to actively investigate media practices, especially their own.
The strongest news organizations always are the most transparent and upfront about what they do, and how they do it, because they have the least to hide. Their openness is a sign of truthfulness, honesty and community goodwill.
On the other end of the spectrum, news organizations that like to practice in the dark, in whatever manner the people in power whim — including playing favorites and trading favors with advertisers or sources — are the ones to carefully watch for sneaky behavior.
A simple but powerful way to express journalistic integrity is to post in a prominent and publicly accessible place (easily found on a website, for example) that code of ethics. MidWeek doesn’t post its code, if it has one, but neither do most of the media organizations on Oahu. Because they have no stated rules, they can’t surpass (or break) them, which I think substantially weakens the journalism community throughout the state.
During the past couple of weeks, I called, emailed and text messaged, when possible, 10 of the most prominent news organizations in Hawaii to ask their leaders about how they handle ethical issues in their newsrooms and if they adhered to a code of ethics or not. Besides not hearing back from MidWeek, I also did not get an answer from the Star-Advertiser (Frank Bridgewater), KHON (Kristina Lockwood) or Ka Leo (Spencer Oshita).
When asked about ethical procedures a couple of weeks ago, Hawaii News Now’s news director, Scott Humber, told me that “how we operate is internal to our operation.”
So I posed similar questions to HNN’s general manager, Rick Blangiardi, who at first said, “I will let you know if we move forward with putting our journalistic policies on our website.”
He then asked for more time to address the specific questions I had asked, including “How do you set, perpetuate and maintain ethical standards in your organization?” So I gave him another week to answer.
We then exchanged several text messages, in which Blangiardi explained in detail how busy he was, before I finally asked, “Do you (HNN) actively use a specific code of ethics or not?” Blangiardi did not reply.
When asked the questions about ethical procedures, Mike Darrah, news director at KITV Island News, said, “Most of what you’re asking about deals with internal policies and principles, and I’d prefer to keep it that way. I do hold the SPJ Code of Ethics and the Associated Press Media Editors Ethics Statement as the gold standards for ethics principles.”
So I had to ask, again: “Do you and your staff adhere to the SPJ Code, or not?”
Darrah said, “By calling SPJ’s code the gold standard, I think it’s clear those are the ethical standards we follow.”
Civil Beat’s Editor Patti Epler pointed to the About Us page on the organization’s website, as a declaration of its values and news-gathering protocols. It reads, “We follow the guidelines set out by the Society of Professional Journalists in its ethics code as well as more general news practices outlined by the Associated Press.” It also lists extended policies on anonymous sources and corrections.
In situations of ethical uncertainty, Hawaii Public Radio’s news director, Bill Dorman, said his organization turns first to the National Public Radio guidelines, followed by the Public Radio News Directors Inc. code.
He added, “Generally speaking, these are guidelines as opposed to a ‘rulebook.’ Some situations are black and white, or binary choices: you don’t pay for news, you clearly separate opinion from news content, you avoid any conflict of interest or appearance of same. But many real world situations are in less well-defined areas, and that’s where a combination of guiding principles, experience and common sense come into play.”
Hawaii Business Magazine editor Steve Petranik said his organization follows the SPJ Code, but he has not explicitly told readers that, adding “Another item for my 2018 To Do list.”
He also said, “My reporters and I discuss specific ethical issues all the time, including anonymous sources, whether a source’s personal information should be included in a story, disclosing conflicts of interest and lots of other topics. … Several times in the nine years I have been the editor of Hawaii Business, we have published stories about organizations, and those organizations have stopped advertising with us. I’m disappointed when we lose an advertiser, but that has never affected my news judgment, and my publisher has backed me every time.”
Honolulu magazine editor Robbie Dingeman said her organization also follows the SPJ Code but doesn’t have that adherence listed on its website or in the printed magazine. She said she would discuss with her colleagues about making such a public pledge in the coming year, but she also wanted to make clear to readers that since she’s been at the magazine, starting in 2013, it has been editorially independent and has not accepted payment for coverage, including for restaurant reviews or to be included on the lists of best doctors, dentists, lawyers, etc.
Dingeman said one of the magazine’s recent restaurant reviews was mixed — “some good, some bad, some room to improve” — but it generated a severe reaction from one of the restaurant’s executives, who withdraw all future advertising. Instead of kowtowing, Dingeman said she supported the editor for doing her job.
One of the professionals on a “best of” list also contacted Dingeman recently to ask how much it would cost to appear on the cover of the top-selling monthly magazine in the state. Dingeman explained that Honolulu magazine does not accept payment for editorial coverage, and the cover is never for sale.
Can MidWeek say the same? What about other content hosted within Oahu Publications’ media channels? Without a public pledge to a specific code, and without public discourse about those standards, we are left to wonder.
As Hawaii’s largest media “entity,” as MidWeek put it, and as a leader in the news business here, Oahu Publications can figure out how to publish short news broadcasts via video screens attached to newspaper racks, self-hailed as a wonder of ingenuity.
So how hard would it be for that same company to simply add a code of ethics to its web pages and then live up to those standards, once they have been set?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.