Posts Tagged ‘Mike Buttry’

I spent much of the year after 9/11 writing about the impact of that terrorist attack. I was a national correspondent for the Omaha World-Herald. The nation’s only academic center for Afghanistan studies was at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and I wrote dozens of stories about our city’s involvement with Afghanistan before and after the attack.

A story that stands out in my memory was part of our first anniversary package. I wrote about the day before the attack, 10 years ago today. Today, I’ll review that story, published Sept. 10, 2002, discussing the storytelling techniques involved.

A  cliché about reporting (and many aspects of life: I got 57,000 hits when I Googled to see where to attribute the phrase) is that you zig when others zag. On the first anniversary of 9/11, everyone was writing stories about that day a year earlier, just as journalists this week have been writing and broadcasting stories about that day 10 years ago. That was zagging. I wanted to zig, to write about something else. So I wrote about the day before:

The big change for many in the Omaha area that day was the closing of the westbound lanes on the Interstate 480 bridge across the Missouri River.

The next day everything changed. (more…)


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In the days of my callow youth, I remember referring to journalists who ventured into public relations as having “sold out.”

Never mind that many in PR toiled for pay as low as many journalists. Never mind that PR ethics also insist on getting the facts right. We like our world simplified into us and them, and to a journalist, the PR world was always them: trying to keep us from the story, trying to manipulate us somehow. (more…)

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Update: Maya Esther is in the United States. Read the update.

A journalist gets an unusual perspective on disaster stories.

Chances are you remember the Oklahoma City bombing from the horrific television images of the demolished building or the heart-rending photograph of a firefighter carrying a dead baby from the building. I remember the bombing from the grit in the air I could feel and taste covering the aftermath in downtown Oklahoma City.

You may have forgotten about the catastrophic mudslides that hit Venezuela in 1999. I will never forget walking with a woman on a devastated mountainside as she pointed at homes where she and relatives once lived. “Es mi casa,” she said, gesturing to some rubble, part of it recognizable as the top of a wall, the rest of her home swept away or buried in mud hardened like concrete. Another woman recalled that horrible night, gesturing downward with her arm, talking about the terror that came rushing down the mountainside, repeating, “cadave” — corpses sliding down in a torrent of mud.

My role as editor of The Gazette during the 2008 flood has received plenty of attention, so I won’t belabor it here. And I recently recalled my role covering the 9/11 attack from a distance. In a career that started in the 1970s, I have covered dozens of tornadoes, floods and other disasters as a reporter and editor. The stories are emotional. You can’t help but feel the human impact, sharing joy and heartbreak with people you interview. But you develop a sort of professional shell that helps you function and keeps you from feeling too deeply.

This week I learned a bit of what it’s like to be one of those people I used to cover, waiting anxiously to learn whether a loved one had survived, trying to bring her to safety. (more…)

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My youngest son, Tom, starts work in Washingon today as a legislative correspondent for Iowa Demcratic Sen. Tom Harkin. To avoid any appearance of conflict, I have told my colleagues at The Gazette that I will avoid any involvement in stories involving Harkin or editorial board discussions that involve Harkin. I may not always know immediately when we are discussing an issue on which Harkin has taken a leadership position, but will withdraw from those discussions when I do become aware.

Tom is a political science graduate of Marquette University and previously worked as an analyst for the Commission on the National Guard and Reserves.

As I have reported previously, my oldest son, Mike, was worked for Chuck Hagel, who was a Republican senator from Nebraska but did not run for re-election last year. Mike held several positions for Hagel, ending as his chief of staff. Hagel is now chairman of the Atlantic Council of the United States and a distinguished professor at Georgetown University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Hagel is less likely to be in the news for Gazette readers, but I would similarly avoid involvement in news coverage or editorial board discussions of Hagel.

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How do small-town journalists maintain credibility while covering public officials who may be their family and friends?

Matt Baron, a friend who works as a freelance journalist, journalism trainer and public relations consultant in Oak Park, Ill., passed that question along to me after a journalist facing that situation posed it at a recent workshop.

I answered that this was not necessarily a small-town problem: When I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald and my son, Mike, was press secretary for Sen. Chuck Hagel, I had to discuss with my editors when and how to keep a proper distance from the senator. But small-town journalists certainly deal more often with that uncomfortable matter of covering people with whom they have personal relationships.

This situation is addressed squarely in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. One of the core principles is: “Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”

The seven bullets that elaborate deal with accepting gifts or special treatment but don’t specifically address this question of close relationships. A couple points offer guidance, though: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” A third point underscores that associations are important, but isn’t particularly helpful in dealing with family relationships: “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” You can’t remain free of relatives and you can’t control their activities.

Bob Steele’s 10 questions to guide ethical decisions also provide some guidance, but don’t address this specific issue. Question 7 (“How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?”) is a good one. How would you feel if you were reading a story written by someone you knew had a close relationship to a source? Questions 9 (what are alternatives?) and 10 (how can you justify your decision to the public?) are helpful, too.

My response is that you need to employ some combination of three factors:

  • Full disclosure to your editors.
  • Proper distance from the source.
  • Transparency with the public.

The right combination of these factors will vary with the situation. My view is that you always disclose any potential conflict (or appearance of conflict) to your editors. This way you turn every decision into a collaboration. In Omaha, I didn’t always agree with my editors’ decisions, but discussing and disagreeing is a better situation than failing to disclose and being accused of unethical behavior.

Of course, no transparency with your audience is needed if you decide the proper distance is for you not to cover stories that deal in any way with a particular person because of the close relationship.

From 2000 to 2005, I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. For all but one year of that stretch, my son Mike worked for Hagel, initially as a press aide, then as press secretary and later as communication director. He eventually became Hagel’s chief of staff, though I had left the World-Herald by then.

The World-Herald had an outstanding political reporter, Dave Kotok (now the managing editor), and usually Dave and our Washington reporters covered Hagel. But I was the national correspondent, which meant that I could be called on to help with political coverage and that I would cover some national issues that could involve Hagel.

It’s good to anticipate these issues and discuss them in general terms before a particular story presents a problem (which may need a swift decision). My editors and I discussed the situation as soon as Mike went to work with Hagel. We decided I shouldn’t write stories that were primarily about Hagel or where Hagel was a primary source.

If I was reporting a story and it seemed like we should have a Hagel comment as a minor element of the story, we decided I could go ahead and handle that. In those cases, I would arrange any interviews through someone else in the press office, rather than calling Mike.

I also informed my editors of my deal with Mike: All discussions between us were off the record, but if I heard something I wanted to pass along to a colleague, I would ask him for permission and abide by his response. (I did frequently hear news from Mike that I wished we could publish in the World-Herald, but abided by his wishes to keep it off the record.)

This worked fairly well. I seldom dealt with Hagel. But I should add that efforts to keep personal relationships at arm’s length sometimes don’t work out the way you plan. I might arrange an interview through someone else in the press office and plan to keep everything professional, but when Hagel, a gregarious man, came on the phone, he would invariably start the conversation with some flattering remark about my son or some teasing remark about trying to straighten my kid out. So much for arm’s length.

After the 9/11 attacks, much of my work for the next few years focused on the University of Nebraska at Omaha’s Center for Afghanistan Studies and its involvement in Afghanistan, both historically and in assisting the Karzai government. This story fit neatly into my beat and it mostly wasn’t about Hagel. But Hagel served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was heavily involved in Afghan affairs and UNO’s role there. I could argue that by steering away from Hagel stories for ethical reasons (I did alert the Washington bureau to some), I undercovered his role in an important local story. Which approach would serve the public better: Keeping my distance from Hagel or accurately reflecting the local senator’s involvement in an important issue?

When President Bush came to Omaha to tout some program he had just announced, I agreed to my editors’ request to be the primary rewrite person for the story, compiling feeds from various reporters at the scene into a single story. Only later, when I realized that Hagel had traveled to Omaha with the president (with Mike accompanying him) and appeared with the president at the rally, did I realize I should have suggested someone else for rewrite duty. I did balk at any involvement in covering future visits to Omaha by President Bush.

My editors had less problem than I did with my involvement in covering Hagel. They said they trusted my integrity. I said I appreciated that, but I didn’t like the appearance (remember the SPJ’s admonition to avoid “real or perceived” conflicts). During the 2004 campaign, Hagel (despite considerable friction with Bush) served as co-chair of Bush’s Nebraska campaign and I said I should avoid coverage of Bush campaign visits. My editors respected that.

Then one Friday, I got a request from the bosses: They would be short-handed Monday and Bush was going to be campaigning in Des Moines. Could I cover that, since Hagel wouldn’t be accompanying him there? Sure, I said. Only later did I learn that Hagel (then considering a 2008 presidential run, so he no doubt was trying to build some Iowa contacts) would spend the weekend campaigning in Iowa, accompanied by Mike. (Parents frequently don’t know about their adult children’s business travels.) I covered Bush in Des Moines (Hagel was not there) but then told my editors that I simply needed to stop covering him, period. They again expressed their trust in my integrity, but agreed to honor my wishes on Bush coverage.

In retrospect, I think I should have insisted more firmly earlier on greater distance from coverage dealing with Hagel. Mike and I share a distinctive last name and lots of people in the Omaha area knew he was my son. I also suggested a few times that an editor’s note should disclose the relationship and my editors always thought no note was necessary. These aren’t black-and-white calls where I can say I was right and they were wrong, but I favor greater transparency than they did.

The situation that the reporter described in raising the issue with Matt Baron was similar but perhaps more difficult to work around: The reporter in a small town was covering a government body where his uncle was an elected official. Sometimes in a small town, you can’t just assign someone else, as we could at the World-Herald.

Sometimes in a small town, you don’t even know about conflicts. In the 1970s I covered city government in Shenandoah, Iowa, where my father had been a pastor (he had moved away by the time of the incident in question). Some clients and employees of an agency that helped underprivileged people complained at a city council meeting about the management approach of two board members of the agency, which received some city money (or might have used city property; for some reason these people came to the council). I reported on the complaints, angering at least one of the board members.

Only later did I learn from my father that he had served on the agency’s board when he was in town and had disagreements with the same two board members over some of the exact same issues they raised a few years later with the city council. Ignorant of Dad’s involvement (what teen-ager pays attention to his parents’ civic activities?), I could not have avoided the conflict. But I’m sure the angry board member thought Dad’s involvement in the board skewed my coverage of the controversy.

My advice to journalists who have to cover news that involves relatives (or close friends): Rearrange assignments when you can. Disclose potential conflicts to the public when you can’t avoid them. Invite public feedback on all content, so that any accusations about favoritism will be made directly to you in story comments or letters to the editor. This way you can address the issue directly rather than have it circulate unchallenged in local gossip.

I deal more with issues of independence in this handout from my ethics seminars.

Do you have other advice to offer for Matt’s friend and his ethical dilemma?

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This week my boss, Gazette Co. CEO Chuck Peters, “tagged” me in a Facebook application called “25 Random Things.”

As closely as I work with Chuck, I learned some interesting things about him through the 25 facts he posted. I saw that I was supposed to post my own 25 random things, then tag Chuck and 24 other people. I didn’t mind sharing some facts about myself, but the tagging process felt a bit like a chain letter. Plus I was busy when Chuck tagged me, so I knew it would be a few days before I would be able to compile my 25 random facts.

Then yesterday I saw that John Robinson, editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, N.C., noted in his Twitter feed that 25 Random Facts was “officially dead” now that a newspaper (the Charlotte Observer) had written about it. The story explained both the upside I had noted, learning interesting facts about people you sort of knew, as well as the downside, that chain letter thing. (more…)

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