Last night, WBRZ reporter Chris Nakamoto ran another in a long line of inaccurate stories on St. George. That makes it time that WBRZ dealt with an issue they should have addressed a long time ago — a matter of basic journalistic ethics.
It was Chris Nakamoto, you will recall, who last year broke the “EBR schools cheating scandal,” with the screaming lead, “CHEATING SCANDAL ROCKS EBR SCHOOLS.”
That was the one that turned out to have nothing at all to do with cheating.
Following WBRZ’s lead, headlines went around the world and back for a few days about the “EBR cheating scandal.” The Advocate finally did a reality-check piece, pointing out that there never even were allegations of cheating, much less evidence of it; that the story dealt with more mundane matters of graduation credits and standards for records keeping. The cheating lead, though, already had its legs.
Nakamoto, for his part, stuck to his guns. Even after the State, and everyone, had confirmed that the story had nothing to do with cheating, Nakamoto ran a whole series of stories with the “cheating scandal” headline and graphic.
And here’s where things get interesting …
You’ll recall that Rep. Pat Smith and others, fed up with what they felt was a smear job on the school district, held a press conference to share a conviction that got ridiculed at the time — that the cheating story had been cooked up by St. George supporters, with media complicity, to discredit the school system and aid the breakaway campaign.
Those allegations got roundly panned at the time. The St. George campaign cooked up the story, with media complicity? How RIDICULOUS.
There was lots of commentary like this post:
Nakamoto covered the Pat Smith press conference and framed her allegations as, well, simply “mystifying.” The key interview for this Nakamoto story (as with many Nakamoto stories) went to one Mssr. Lionel Rainey, who duly hit his St. George talking points. “Crazy officials, always blaming other people. One more reason to support St. George.”
Throughout all these reports, and many others on St. George, Nakamoto never bothered to disclose one rather significant fact — that he, himself, had signed the St. George petition several months earlier.
Nakamoto had made himself an active part of the campaign he was claiming to cover, giving unfailingly favorable treatment to the side on which he had declared himself.
(As a side note, Nakamoto didn’t wait long to get on the St. George train. He signed the petition on October 27th, 2013, only about a month after the petition drive got started. His signature is on page 66 of a petition that would eventually have 1797 pages.)
So to review …
Chris Nakamoto, in his capacity as a reporter covering St. George and related issues, turned again and again to St. George spokespeople for his leads, framing and key interviews. Months prior to covering these stories, he had become a petitioner in favor of the campaign he was covering. And despite all that, at no point did he disclose his involvement to his viewers, or even say to himself, or to his bosses, “Maybe I’m not the best guy to cover this story.”
His reporting was routinely favorable to St. George and unfavorable to its opponents and the school district. He even went so far as to cover a story that was, essentially, about himself, presenting Pat Smith (and others’) allegation that the “cheating scandal” smear, which he himself had broken, was ginned up by St. George and its media supporters as, well, just “mystifying.”
After the petition became a matter of public record, Nakamoto backed away from the St. George beat, for reasons that are presumably clear. All it would take for someone to find out the role he was playing was to do a public records request, find his name at the petition and start paying attention to his reporting.
But until that point, Nakamoto’s reporting was a poster child for what it means to breach the journalistic Code of Ethics.
And yes, there actually is such a code. It was created by the Society of Professional Journalists to articulate “the foundation of ethical journalism”. Here are a few of its mandates. Any of them sound relevant?
We don’t know much about the role of the leadership of WBRZ in this affair, whether they knew about Nakamoto’s conflict, or if they did, when they found out and what, if anything, they did about it.
Whatever their role, there are two more mandates from the Journalists’ Code of Ethics, to which WBRZ ought to give some serious consideration in the coming days: