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.