by Jim Heaney, editor of Investigative Post
Note: This post was written in November 2012 and has been amended to reflect a change in the presidency of Investigative Post.
Dan Telvock, our environmental reporter, has a new report about the failure of the Department of Environmental Conservation to aggressively act on requests to enforce state law at the Peace Bridge that prohibits trucks from idling. It is the first in a series of stories that Dan intends to produce regarding the Peace Bridge.
In many ways, covering the Peace Bridge makes perfect sense for Investigative Post, although it is not without complications, for reasons I’ll explain in a minute.
I hired Dan to cover environmental issues and he is the only full-time environmental reporter in the Buffalo market. Suffice to say, Investigative Post is committed to strong environmental coverage.
The Peace Bridge, meanwhile, has emerged as a major environmental issue in recent years. Pollution from bridge traffic – an average of 13,000 cars and 3,400 trucks cross the bridge daily – has been associated with a host of health problems among residents of the Lower West Side. Chief among them: an asthma rate that is nearly four times the national average.
You as a reader are most likely aware of the tortured history of efforts to improve, replace or twin the bridge.
Once upon a time, the focus was on building a signature bridge and much of the public discussion focused on architecture. These days, plans call not for a new bridge, but an expansion of the plaza on the American side, and the health impacts of bridge traffic on the mostly low-income, minority residents in the nearby neighborhood have become part of the conversation.
And that’s where things get complicated for me as editor of Investigative Post.
The Clean Air Coalition of Western New York – the folks who took on Tonawanda Coke – are organizing West Side residents around the issue of the bridge’s health impacts. The coalition and residents haven’t been shy asserting their contention that bridge traffic is hazardous to their community’s health and pressing public officials to take their concerns more seriously.
What complicates matters is that my daughter Erin is executive director of the Clean Air Coalition.
This would not pose a problem for a news organization larger than Investigative Post. The solution to any potential conflict of interest would be put me out of the loop when it comes to Peace Bridge coverage involving the Clean Air Coalition. I wouldn’t report, I wouldn’t edit.
The reporting half is easy. I will not be reporting Peace Bridge issues that involve the Clean Air Coalition. That’s Dan’s assignment.
But Dan, like any reporter, requires a supervisor, an editor. And at Investigative Post, I’m it.
Editor. Executive director. Fund-raiser. Bill payer. Heck, I empty the trash cans and water the plants, too. Seriously.
Such is life in a small operation.
So, what’s an editor/garbageman to do?
Well, the safe thing would be to have Investigative Post ignore the story. That’s a coward’s way out, however.
Instead, in consultation with Lee Coppola, my board president, and Jeff Woodard, news director at WGRZ, our primary media partner, we’ve opted to pursue the stories and be transparent about the father-daughter relationship.
As anyone who knows me can attest to, I am more than capable of exercising independent judgment when it comes to anyone and everyone. Including my daughter. In fact, anyone who lived within earshot of our house when Erin was growing up can vouch for our ability, and at times, willingness, to disagree with each other.
More importantly, the final authority on Dan’s coverage of Peace Bridge issues, and any other coverage involving matters involving the Clean Air Coalition, will rest with Coppola and Woodard. (Note: Coppola left the board in 2014 and has been succeeded by David Cay Johnston, who now reviews stories involving Erin Heaney.)
Lee is a veteran investigative reporter, a former federal prosecutor and the retired dean of the St. Bonaventure University School of Journalism. His integrity is beyond reproach. He’ll have the final word on Peace Bridge stories involving the Clean Air Coalition that are produced for our website and shared with our print partners.
Jeff, as he does with all stories we produce for Ch. 2, approves all content we produce for his station.
I’ll grant that this is not a perfect solution. It is, however, the best one we can fashion, short of simply walking away from stories we feel need to be told.
So transparency it is. Along with objectivity.
I am supremely confident that our coverage will be the byproduct of honest, factual reporting, or, as Carl Bernstein once put it: “The best obtainable version of the truth.”
Investigative Post is far from being the only news organization confronted with conflicts. Some are better than others in being upfront with their readers and viewers. In our case, we’re being as forthcoming and transparent as possible.