WASHINGTON — The decision of the Denver Post not to disclose to readers that its health-care writer accepted a new job with an organization that supports Obamacare indirectly came under fire from a nationally-recognized former editor of the paper as “an incomplete show of honesty.”
Fred Brown, the vice chair of ethics at the Society of Professional Journalists and an editor at the Post when its staff won a Pulitzer Prize in 2000, did not criticize the paper specifically or its handling of the departure of Michael Booth, the paper’s health care writer who announced he had taken a position with the Colorado Health Foundation last week. Instead, Brown discussed the media ethics of disclosure and perceived conflicts of interest in general.
“I think (disclosure) needs to appear in all of the places where the story has appeared: not just online, but offline. If It has aired online or in print, in any media, it should be in all,” Brown said in a telephone interview.
“If you want to be straight forward, you do it (disclose) in all of the platforms available to you,” Brown added.
Kevin Z. Smith, the chair of ethics at the Society of Professional Journalists, was unavailable for comment.
Booth, an award-winning reporter, said he and the influential daily publication have disclosed the news of his departure. “We have been fully transparent within the Denver Post and with any readers who care (see Twitter, Facebook etc.) since Monday,” he wrote in an email.
Colorado Peak Politics, a conservative online publication, was the first to break the news of the controversy of Booth’s departure.
On Jan. 6, Booth announced on Twitter he had accepted a position with the Colorado Health Foundation, which has provided funding to the Colorado Health Initiative, a non-profit that is implementing the state-run health exchange in Colorado. “Thanks @denverpost for 25 years’ license to ask, explain, critique + tell stories. Look forward to @CoHealthFDN work. Support journalism,” he tweeted.
The Initiative has an Affordable Care Act Implementation Fund Project, which seeks to “educate and assist consumer in purchasing coverage through the health insurance exchange established by the federal government.” The Health Foundation is listed as among the financial donors to the project.
The Post did not disclose the news of Booth’s new position or his new employer’s position on health care either on the paper’s online site or its print edition.
Colorado Peak Politics criticized the Post’s handling of the episode. On Jan. 10, the publication ran this headline: “Denver Post Reporter Has Interest in Obamacare Success.”
Greg Moore, the Post’s editor, rebutted the claim that Booth’s new job conflicts with his current one. “I don’t really see the connection with that. I don’t really see the connection,” he said in a telephone interview. “He’s going to do communications stuff. It’s not a political party. It’s not a lobbying organization.”
Booth added that he and his editors have been sensitive to conflict-of-interest charges. “We are always fully cognizant of the high feelings surrounding the Affordable Care Act. Our goal is to report and explain thoroughly and fairly. If anyone has specific claims of actual bias that appears in the newspages, we’d be happy to consider those,” he wrote in an email.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ standards on conflicts of interests are more demanding than the participants in the flap over Booth’s departure cited. The organization said journalists should “(a)void conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
Brown said newspaper editors should be extra careful to avoid perceived conflicts of interest. “I think to be safe in ethical question, you need to think it’s important,” he said.
In addition, Booth’s departure has sparked criticism from conservatives because he has continued to write about the Affordable Care Act even after he announced he had taken his new job.
Peak Politics noted that Booth co-wrote a story Jan. 9 that examined the controversy surrounding a state insurance official’s claim that the staff of Sen. Mark Udall (D-Colo.) sought to intimidate her to lower the number of cancelled insurance policies as a result of Obamacare. ” “(W)e think it would have been most appropriate for him to disclose his new role in conjunction for an article that he wrote since he’s covering the beat,” the editors of the publication wrote Jan. 10.
Booth will serve as the editor of Health Elevations, a quarterly publication of the Health Foundation. His new job begins Jan. 21.
The Denver Post continues to be the most powerful daily publication in Colorado. Its paid subscription figures have risen in recent years to 416,676 during the weekday and 626,875 on Sunday, according to Statista, Inc. Also, the paper received a Pulitzer Prize in 2000 and 2013 for its coverage of breaking news.