What the Plymouth Independent can do to regain its independence
a “multiple news outlet town” is a true blessing
When a pharmaceutical company advertises on a news network, the disclosure is self evident, especially so if the network fires a star personality in favor of the advertising dollar. Soap operas are funded by the makers of household cleaning goods. Viewers understand the connection. The ads fund the program, perfect transparency.
Over the last decade plus the news industry has seen an upheaval akin to the fall of the US manufacturing in the 1970s. As Taylor Lorenz, the Washington Post media columnist, recently observed “local news has just been obliterated.”
Navigating these waters has been difficult and one solution has been the advent of donor supported publications like the newly launched Plymouth Independent.
But how does a local news outlet insure donor transparency, so the public can understand who is paying for the news product?
One way is to publicly disclose all donors, which the Plymouth Independent does on its donor and sponsor pages. And another method is to “avoid accepting charitable donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates seeking public office,” which is the stated policy of the Independent.
But unfortunately the Independent did not adhere to its own ethical guideline when accepting a pattern of donations from multiple prominent Plymouth public officials contrary to the publication’s own ethics policy to “avoid” such donations.
The publication’s donation processing page does inquire if the donation is from a “corporate/organization” but does not remind potential donors of the Independent’s stated policy to avoid donations from government entities, political parties, elected officials or candidates seeking public office.
While there is no evidence the Plymouth Independent altered news coverage as a result of the donations or that donors had an expectation of favorable treatment, the appearance of conflict jeopardizes the outlet’s perceived neutrality and mission to build a “firewall between our news coverage decisions and our sources of funding to ensure that our journalism is free from fear or favor.”
Having a “two newspaper town” or in the modern era, a “multiple news outlet town” is a true blessing, regaining the faith and trust of the community should be the Plymouth Independent’s top priority. We offer a way forward here:
Return all donations from elected officials, appointed officials and candidates for office received contrary to the publication’s ethics policy to “avoid” such donations
Discontinue any recurring donations from elected officials, appointed officials and candidates for office
Take full responsibility for accepting the donations
Release from responsibility all elected officials, appointed officials and candidates for office from whom the Independent received donations
Insert an Editors Note at the top of any pre-existing story which references an elected official, appointed official and candidate for office who donated, even if that donation has now been returned
Develop a pre-emptive screening process to detect donations from elected officials, appointed officials and candidates for office prior to receiving the donation, including a statement on the donation page of the policy to “avoid” such donations.
Publish a complete and searchable donor list
Disclose in any story going forward the receipt of a donation if that story includes a direct or indirect reference to a donor
Develop a policy of disclosure for citizens who donated and then subsequently declare for public office
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