Many news reporters are members of labor unions. But did you know that some of them are labor union leaders?
In fact, two Wisconsin newspaper reporters who have covered major labor union-related stories over the past few years are themselves labor union leaders in their workplaces.
Patrick Marley and Georgia Pabst are union stewards for the Milwaukee Newspaper Guild local 51, which is affiliated with the Communication Workers of America and the International AFL-CIO.
Marley works in the Journal Sentinel’s Capitol bureau and provided much of the paper’s coverage of the Big Labor temper tantrum in the wake of the passage of Scott Walker’s public employee labor reforms, now known as Act 10.
Georgia Pabst is a general assignment reporter for the paper. She has provided extensive coverage of the dispute between illegal immigrant rights group Voces de la Frontera and the highly regarded local employer, Palermo’s.
Both Marley and Pabst, of course, have every right to participate in union activities but here is the ethical problem: They do not disclose their union leadership positions when their articles on union issues run in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
According the the union’s website the guild represents more than 130 reporters, copy editors, photographers, page designers, artists, support staff and some deputy and assistant editors at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and producers and designers at JSOnline. Yet only 69 members voted in the the last contract ratification in October of 2012. So the union activism by the front line reporters is strictly voluntarily.
Would readers regard that as a conflict of interest? Would it cast their reporting on union-related issues in a different light? Impossible to know, because readers are never told, even though the Society of Professional Journalists declares that journalists should:
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
Marley, who co-authored a paperback book about the Blue Fist labor tantrums in Madison, has written many articles about the effort to change public employee labor laws in Wisconsin and the events that followed. He did so without disclosing his position as a union steward in a local chapter of the AFL-CIO.
In addition to Marley and Pabst, Dave Umhoefer is a union steward and sits on the Grievance and Representation Committee. Umhoefer heads the Politifact feature for the Journal Sentinel.
Education reporter Erin Richards (who routinely reports on labor issues at MPS) and General Assignment Reporter Don Walker have also recently been highlighted in the guild’s newsletter for attending union-sponsored events. (Correction: Walker informs me he is the City Hall reporter).
Without any sense of irony, the newspaper guild itself proclaims to be concerned about conflicts of interest when it comes to what appears in the paper. Take for example, this nugget from the guild’s March/April 2013 newsletter (empahasis mine):
"Often in our business, what is ethical and professional isn’t black and white, especially given the newspaper’s commitment to uncover the truth and the pressure to be the first to report it. There have been times over the years that the union and the company have disagreed about certain journalistic practices, but most often there have been open discussions about them.
"Management proved to be more than willing to listen to us in February when a freelance blogger/columnist with well-documented ties to an outside interest group was used to break news. This raised considerable concern among newsroom staffers, both within our bargaining unit and among middle managers. …But the Guild, and many of our members judging from what I’ve heard around the newsroom, has serious concerns about the can of worms we opened with the use of a freelance columnist to break news, particularly without proper representation of who he is and what potential conflict of interest there may be with him reporting the story."
Apparently, this freak out had to do with a story by Christian Schneider who blogs for the paper and writes a freelance column. He’s also a fellow at the conservative Wisconsin Policy Research Institute (WPRI).
This type of conflict troubles the union -- the same union that fails to disclose their own labor union ties when writing about conflicts between labor and management in both the public and the private sectors.
Do readers have a right to know that the reporters who are supposedly objectively writing articles about labor management issues themselves are leaders in an AFL-CIO local that rallies members with the motto: "United we bargain. Divided we beg?"
Readers of RightWisconsin know the prism from which our staff sees the world: We wear our conservatism on our sleeves and on our masthead. Our editor in chief is a fellow at WPRI and also edited their magazine, Wisconsin Interest; I am a fellow at the MacIver Institute and also work with parents whose children learn in online charter schools.
Why can't the The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel disclose the affiliations of their reporters?
Here is an email exchange I had with Don Walker this morning. I received this email at 8:08am and have made his requested alteration as of 8:32 am.
Don Walker 8:08 AM (24 minutes ago) to Brian
Hi Brian. I saw your story on the union affiliations at the Journal Sentinel. And I saw that you mentioned my name. It is true that I attended union-sponsored events. But it is not true that I am a general assignment reporter. I cover City Hall for the paper. I'd like a correction. Thanks.
Fr: Brian Fraley 8:27 AM (5 minutes ago) to Don Ok. Will do.
I've seen your name on state news and the business of sports. Are these regular beats, or just pinch-hitting assignments?
In any event, I will update the post accordingly.
To: Brian Fr: Don Walker 8:29 AM (4 minutes ago)
I am primarily the City Hall reporter. But you are correct that I wear many hats. I still maintain a Business of Sports blog, I still do some general assignment and I write some politics.