WATCHDOG: Denver Post Should Disclose Reporter’s Relationship With Operative

February 27, 2013
By

CONFLICT? The romantic relationship between a Denver Post political reporter and the head of a environmental group should be disclosed publicly, two leading journalists said

WASHINGTON — The romantic relationship between the Denver Post‘s Washington correspondent and the head of an environmentalist interest group should be disclosed publicly, two leading journalists said.

Washington reporter Allison Sherry’s ties with the Center for Western Priorities’ Trevor Kincaid have been the subject of one blog post and off-the-record musings among Republican staff members in Colorado’s congressional delegation for years. But the propriety of a Washington reporter dating a political actor seeking to influnce members of Congress she covers has not been explored.

Kevin Z. Smith, chairman of the ethics committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, indicated that Sherry’s relationship represents a conflict of interest whether perceived or real.  “I think it’s a potential conflict of interest. If the boyfriend is in the background directing the paper’s coverage, that’s a real conflict,” he said.

Hagit Limor, past president of the Society of Professional Journalists and a member of its ethics committee, agreed. “Reporters are people too, but there’s no question in mind that if you have someone special in your life, whether it’s a girlfriend or boyfriend or a family member, you should disclose it … To me, it’s a no-brainer of a situation based on what I have heard described from you,” she said.

Sherry, the Post’s Washington, DC Chief, indicated that both her relationship with Kincaid and its propriety have been beyond reproach. “My relationship has been disclosed for some time, and I’m in no violation of the DP’s ethics policy, which was crafted with the help of members of SPJ,” she wrote in an email.

Sherry declined to elaborate and referred further questions to her editors. Denver Post editor Greg Moore did not respond to a voicemail message. Kincaid, the executive director of the center, also did not respond to a voicemail.

Sherry has been a reporter at the Post since 2001.  The Society of Professional Journalists gave her an Honorable Mention last year as a Washington Correspondent, noting that she “understands how to narrow and translate the wide Washington web to hone in on her community’s needs and interests.”

Sherry covered the 2010 Senate race between then-appointed Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat, and his Republican challenger Ken Buck. Kincaid served as Bennet’s spokesman and communications director, and he is quoted in at least two stories in which Sherry’s byline apears.

Five months after Bennet eked out a 29,000-vote victory, a blog post appeared on the website of Colorado free-market blogger Ross Kaminsky that contained an image of Kincaid playfully holding the arms of a smiling Sherry on a mountain bluff. The April 2011 post contained a statement from Curtis Hubbard, a Post editor, that acknowledged a relationship between Sherry and Kincaid, who was described as a private citizen.

Last summer, Kincaid was announced as the executive director of the Center for Western Priorities, a Denver-based environmental advocacy group that has aggressively opposed oil and gas development on public lands.

By this time, Sherry had moved from Colorado to Washington to serve as a correspondent. Today the paper’s website describes her job as that of  “covering the Colorado delegation as well as issues that Coloradans care about, like energy and health care.”

The overlap between Sherry’s beat and Kincaid’s job has not been disclosed by the Post, based on a search on the web. No stories or editorials appear in which the paper’s editors mention the ties between Sherry and Kincaid.

Kincaid’s organization has criticized the pro-drilling stand of Gov. John Hickenlooper. It also drew the ire of House Republican staffers in the delegation for a blog post last September that targeted Rep. Cory Gardner (R-Yuma).  It endorsed the Natural Resources Defense Council’s description of Gardner as a “dirty air villain” and used the quote in a headline. Its post criticized Gardner for sponsoring the Domestic Energy and Jobs Act, a piece of legislation that sought to reduce the price of gas and create jobs in the oil-and-gas industry.

A House Republican aide described Sherry’s coverage of the delegation as fair overall. “I’ve never seen where it’s influenced anything in a specific way, but it’s hard to say,” this staffer said. Yet the aide wondered whether the blog post criticizing Gardner had shaped her thinking.

One aide points to a March 2012 blog post in which Sherry implied that Gardner and Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colorado Springs) had misled the public in claiming that domestic oil production on federal lands had fallen. “(I)t appears development is happening on both private and public lands at an accelerated rate,” Sherry wrote, referring to Interior Department statistics.

Yet PolitiFact.com, a syndicated column that won a Pulitzer Prize in 2009, indirectly contradicted Sherry’s claim. It examined Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s similar claim that domestic oil production on federal lands had declined 14 percent and affirmed that it had dropped from 2010 to 2011. “So: Did the United States produce 14 percent less oil on its public lands last year? Yes,” the column noted in its ruling.

Sherry’s statement that members of the Society of Professional Journalists had helped write the policy on her relationship with Kincaid could not be verified.

Both Smith and Limor said newspapers should seek to dispel perceptions of favoritism or bias by disclosing possible conflicts of interest. “Would the public want to know that she’s in a relationship with the the head of this organization? I would think they would want to,” Smith said. “Just for the sake of your integrity and reliability, you want to make this known.”

Smith added that when journalists have relationships with political actors, their independence and ethics are compromised. “Journalists are supposed to be independent. If you have a person on your staff who has a relationship with the head of a group with political ties, a super PAC or whatever, a group that’s evaluating political candidates, they are tied in to the political processs. There’s clearly a connection that would concern the public. Now the public may not be concerned enough … but let them decide,” he said.

Limor said “perception is hugely important to what we (journalists) do.”

She recommended that a newspaper should disclose the reporter’s relationship with a political actor in every relevant story. Smith advised that a newspaper’s editors should consider reassigning the reporter to another beat if they think he or she might be biased.

The Denver Post has the largest circulation of any newspaper in the state of Colorado with a paid circulation of 412,669 weekday copies and 604,184 copies on Sunday, according to Statista Inc.

“HOTTIE”: A screencap of Kincaid’s Facebook page from earlier this month, along with a comment posted by Denver Post political reporter Allison Sherry

Comments made by visitors are not representative of The Colorado Observer staff.

13 Responses to WATCHDOG: Denver Post Should Disclose Reporter’s Relationship With Operative

  1. February 27, 2013 at 10:31 am

    Partisan attacks on a scrupulously fair journalist are never pretty, but this one is particularly ugly, sexist and unfair. Those comments extend to the journalism ethics “experts” who apparently responded sight unseen to partisan questions from a partisan reporter, without bothering to discern the facts for themselves. Allison Sherry’s reporting and writing has always been exemplary and beyond reproach. The whisper campaign has never come up with a single instance of biased reporting. In fact, because she knows full well she’s under scrutiny, Allison purposefully avoids any conflict or appearance of conflict. Maybe the Observer is late to the news, but this relationship has been “disclosed” in many other forms. It’s good to know they’ve discovered Facebook as a reporting tool, but Allison’s editors have publicly backed her in other forums, long before this. There are hundreds of groups in Washington and Colorado working on public resource issues, and their positions are well known to everyone on all sides. Would you have written the same hatchet piece on a male journalist whose girlfriend is allegedly “directing coverage”? Any good journalist will also see the reporter’s internal twisting of Allison’s statement about ethics. What she said, accurately, was that The Denver Post’s longstanding ethics policy was developed by members of SPJ and many other professional, career journalists, in months of discussion, meetings, comparison and review. Attacks on mainstream journalists from partisan web sites can be expected, but shame on anyone from SPJ or other professional journalism groups who enable misleading hit pieces in order to build their quote files.

    • Ulf
      February 27, 2013 at 7:23 pm

      It’s okay, Michael. It’s really a moot point. No one reads the Denver Post thinking that they’re consuming honest, unbiased accounts of current events. We all know that what we read in the Denver Post is written by, or at least influenced by, a bunch of boat driving, Corona swilling, Facebook flirting, heavy-to-port listing, environmentalist, self-righteous propagandists. That there’s interbreeding going on between the Denver Post staff and environmentalist groups is to be expected.

    • Big Lou
      March 1, 2013 at 5:20 am

      Michael,

      Maybe you should wake up to the fact that a lot of Allison’s bias is represented in what she chooses not to write. Her articles read like a newsletter for Bennet and Udall while any mention of our GOP delegation is almost always in a negative context. Would it kill her to help inform us as to what our CO Republican members are doing? Clearly those stories don’t mesh with her world view.

      Just another reason why I cancelled my subscription to the Post. I take the coupons home from work….and the editorial page as well, I find it makes a nice lining for my puppy’s crate.

  2. Chaz
    February 27, 2013 at 11:14 am

    What do you know, a reporter (Michael Booth – Denver Post) who seems to have an issue with prying into personal lives. I agree this type of story is not good for journalism, but it hardly started on this website. I’ve seen plenty of these stories on the Denver Post’s website covering celebrities, politicians, and business leaders without so much as a confirmation. In an age where (all) media is in the business of making celebrities out of their own staff, this should serve as a warning that this business model also makes them targets for this sort of journalism.

  3. David
    February 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

    Mike, I must say it’s ironic (and gratifying) to see a Denver Post reporter complaining about media bias and whining about someone’s quote being “twisted” to fit the political agenda of the publication. After all, it’s what the Denver Post does every single day.
    Not so much fun on the other side of the microscope, is it Mikey?!?

  4. Frank
    February 27, 2013 at 2:45 pm

    With Kincaid being such an environmental purist, I’m guessing that boat is running on either switchgrass or solar power. Or maybe that’s not the kind of green that’s important to this guy.

  5. Jeff
    February 27, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Since some may say a majority of reporters are “in bed” with the environmental left, one might ponder whether literally would make any difference.

  6. Jackson
    February 27, 2013 at 4:06 pm

    I’ll add a ditto to David’s 11:51am post.

  7. February 27, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    Since this story and subsequent discussion appears to be moving more toward politics and less toward the media’s ethical standard,s let me clarify some points.

    During the course of offering my opinion I wasn’t told the names of the people or that it involved the Denver Post. In fact, I thought the inquiry was a discussion of a potential issue between an editor and a reporter at the Colorado Observer. The Post’s name never surfaced in the talk. That’s not relevant except to note I know the Post has ethical standards in place and used SPJ’s code of ethics as a backdrop.

    My premise is the same, in that conflicts, real and perceived, must be examined to guarantee the integrity of the reporter and the media outlet and to assure the public that ethical standards are adhered to. Conflicts of interest are a serious concern in journalism.

    Having spoken to Sherry at length after my comments to the Colorado Observer I am confident that the Post acted with strong ethical regards toward the relationship. This was vetted by editors and assurances were made to see that conflicts between reporting and personal lives were acknowledged and mediated before they became an issue.

    I’ve been addressing journalism ethics for 20 years. I don’t consider myself an expert in many things, but media ethics is one I’ll claim, so there is no need to reference by expert status with quote marks around them. And, I don’t need clips.

    • Hagit Limor
      February 28, 2013 at 1:13 pm

      My comments here were hypothetical as well, with no names provided. I made clear in so many words that my comments were based on facts as the reporter presented them. Given that, I stand by what I said about perception and conflicts of interest but I now believe in this case, the reporter and paper may have gone through the process and vetting I would advise.

      I’m completely uninterested in the politics of this situation, and like Mr. Smith, have no need or interest in a clip file. I answer questions about journalism ethics purely because I – and the Society – believe so hugely in the importance of integrity in our field. And yes, to the skeptics and pundits: there are many, many reporters with integrity who traverse the gray areas that life presents through the guidance of ethical standards.

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