The cost of four full-page color ads on a Wednesday in the Knoxville News Sentinel could have run Knox Accountability $7,500 as an insert, as much as $34,579.20 if it ran in the paper itself. But the group, which two weeks ago started its petition drive to get seven amendments to the Knox County Charter on the November ballot, didn't have to spend a dime. The group got both of its petitions—the Orange Petition, which contains four proposed amendments to overhaul County Commission, and the White Petition, which contains three amendments pertaining to the county's executive branch—in the paper and in front of 200,000 sets of eyes, entirely free, as supplemental editorial content.
But when the content hit the street and the Web on June 25, a controversy began to brew as to whether the city's major daily newspaper—which had, only days before, run an editorial encouraging Knox County residents to sign the petitions—was becoming overly involved in the issue. Could this direct participation damage the daily's credibility as an objective news source in its continuing coverage of the charter petition story?
The controversy began to take shape in the News Sentinel's infamous knoxnews.com comments section, where the first commenter, "wherethesundontshine," wrote the following:
"This is a new low for KNS and their staff. The KNS is actively participating with a special interest group. This is against the News Sentinel's own ethics code."
The commenter then cited the E.W. Scripps Corp. (owner of the News Sentinel and Metro Pulse) Ethics Code, which says, in part, that "[Journalists] must not participate in political fund-raising, political organizing, nor other activities designed to enhance a candidate, a political party or a political-interest organization."
The debate moved on to local blogs.
"This printing of the orange and white ballots has crossed a line. It has expressly violated the E.W. Scripps Ethics policy on political activity. In addition, [News Sentinel editor Jack] McElroy has now made the Sentinel a $7,500 contributor to Knox Accountability," wrote blogger and former Knox County Republican Party Chairman Brian Hornback on brianhornback.blogspot.com.
On the politically-progressive blog KnoxViews, former Democratic County Commission candidate Stacey Diamond wrote that it was "irresponsible for the paper to get involved in it as they have."
McElroy, who on Sunday, June 22, wrote an editorial titled "Publishing petitions will aid voters," says that the newspaper's editorial board is largely in favor of the amendments getting on the ballot. On the same day, the editorial section ran another story encouraging voters to sign them.
"We believe that people should have the chance to vote on something of this sort," McElroy says in an interview. "It's a chance for people to participate in their government, which we believe was conducted in good faith and reflected real effort on the part of hundreds of citizens."
So when Knox Accountability approached the newspaper: "We said, ‘OK we'll run it,'" McElroy says. "It's a much stronger statement to put them right in the hands of our readers and say, ‘Here you are if you want them.'"
Critical commenters and bloggers also dropped a toll-free phone number, encouraging readers to call in and complain about McElroy and the News Sentinel. The number is a complaint line at EthicsPoint, a company contracted by E.W. Scripps to handle whistleblower complaints and ethical violations.
But McElroy says that it wasn't, in fact, a violation of that policy, claiming that the section in question applies to individuals working outside of the newspaper and not decisions made by the editorial staff as to the paper's content.
Representatives from EthicsPoint say they are not permitted to disclose whether they've received any complaints.
Thomas Huang, an ethics and diversity fellow at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the assistant managing editor at the Dallas Morning News, says he doesn't believe that what the News Sentinel did was an actual ethical breach, but that's not saying they did everything right.
The petitions ran as an insert within the Community section, a news features section; it was labeled only with a small bit of text explaining what it was, and did not include any opposing commentary.
"I think there were ways it could have been better executed," Huang says. "They could have printed the petition as part of the commentary section. They could have had a clear editor's note explaining why they were doing what they were doing and that the petition group had approached them, and they could have had a column or a note from an opponent explaining their point of view."
Without that information, Huang says, it's now much harder for the News Sentinel's reporters to appear balanced in the coverage of the story.
"It puts a greater burden on the news side, for the news reporters to be as fair as they can be," he says. "Reporters are going to have to go out of their way to make sure they're representing the viewpoint of those who oppose the petition."
And McElroy admits that something like this does put himself and the news section's credibility in a questionable light.
"Is this something that will raise questions as to our credibility? Sure, it will," McElroy says. "It does have an effect, but overall, it's my judgment that it really has a positive effect on our credibility because it reflects on our commitment to promoting vigorous debate over government in our community."