A Chronicle Herald reporter is nominated for a journalism award, but did she cross the line?

Here’s part of an email I sent last Tuesday (March 28) to the organizers of the Atlantic Journalism Awards, the day after the finalists were announced for this year’s awards. (Full disclosure: I was an editor at The Chronicle Herald until I left in December 2014. I was also very involved with the union local since the newsroom joined CWA Canada in 1999. My former colleagues have been on strike since Jan. 26, 2016. I support them.)

In reading through the 2016 AJA finalists, released yesterday, I noticed a few odd things about one of the entries in the Breaking/Spot News Reporting (Print and Online) category, namely from Heather Desveaux of The Chronicle Herald for The Hannah Collection.
Full disclosure up front: I am a former editor with The Chronicle Herald and have been lucky enough to be nominated for AJAs in the past, so I am familiar with the submission process.
(I)n “Resources of the newsroom”, Ms. Desveaux states: “I spent some time helping co-ordinate some supports for her, and on Christmas eve, brought her a small christmas tree…”.
If she is telling the truth, this violates normal journalistic ethics, and I know for a fact that it violates the Herald’s newsroom ethics policy. A reporter is not supposed to offer gifts or other financial assistance to a source of a story. That is a clear conflict of interest. There is nothing wrong with telling readers about others’ efforts to raise money for the subject of story. But to cross the line and actually give her a gift while she is still doing stories on this woman is unethical.
The other problem I have with this statement regarding the Christmas tree is that her own story, as submitted, contradicts what she told the judges in her entry submission. In the sixth paragraph in the Dec. 26 story headlined “Assault victim, cat Daisy reunited”, Ms. Desveaux writes: “A friend brought her a small Christmas tree …”.
This is extremely troubling. Ms. Desveaux is being untruthful, either in her coverage of the story, or in what she has told the judges in her own submission. Which is it? Did a friend give this woman a Christmas tree, or did Ms. Desveaux give it to her? Or are they the same person? At the very least, as the reporter, Ms. Desveaux should not be giving her sources gifts. She should also be truthful in her reporting, and in her submissions to an organization that seeks to recognize journalistic excellence.
As an organization with a long and proud history of spotlighting journalistic excellence, the Atlantic Journalism Awards should also uphold the highest ethical standards. It should not be seen to be rewarding journalists who are apparently dishonest or less-than-forthcoming in their coverage or in their submissions for awards consideration. The apparent ethical violations alone should disqualify these particular stories from consideration.

I have other problems with this submission. For the breaking news category, the guidelines state: “An entry consists of the initial story or package of stories from the first publication or issue after the event.”

Desveaux/The Herald submitted stories from five different issues, up to the Dec. 26 edition.

Also, since the strike started, most stories in the Herald written by replacement workers have been missing bylines. Only one of Desveaux’s stories has her byline — the one published Dec. 26. So, we don’t know for sure who wrote most of these stories, but it is likely Desveaux.

And these stories don’t really scream breaking news to me, especially compared to the other finalists in this category. But that’s subjective.

My main problem with the stories, however, is the apparent ethical violation in Desveaux’s submission and/or in her Dec. 26 story.

Bill Skerrett, executive director of the AJAs, told me yesterday that the judges’ decision is final and that the AJAs do not screen submissions before they’re sent to the judges. Essentially, it’s up to the judges to catch this stuff. (By the way, the AJA judges aren’t usually identified until the night of the awards gala. This year, it’s May 6 in St. John’s.)

He said the judges in this category considered only Desveaux’s stories from Sept. 8 and 9 and apparently didn’t read the other ones. Skerrett also said that they assume the Herald went through the submissions and checked for this sort of thing. (As we know, however, from the Missy/chains/rampaging Syrian refugee kids story, the Herald hasn’t had the best track record over the past year on checking their stuff.)

Regardless, it’s something the judges should have caught, if they actually read Desveaux’s own supporting document with her submission. She says that she helped “co-ordinate some supports” for the subject of her stories, “and on Christmas eve (sic), brought her a small christmas (sic) tree”.

This is what she reported in her Dec. 26 story:

So, which is it? Did a friend bring her the Christmas tree or did Desveaux? Are they the same person? Also, the quote from Hannah claims “I had been networking with the local churches…” But we already know from Desveaux’s submission that she, as the reporter, helped “co-ordinate some supports” for Hannah.

This wouldn’t be a problem, if Desveaux weren’t also writing about this woman. There’s a reason journalists shouldn’t give gifts to their sources. It rightly leads to questions about integrity.

In other words, journalists should not induce sources to talk to them through promises of gifts, money or favourable coverage. The source should also not feel financially obliged to speak to a reporter, or fear that they will be disadvantaged if they don’t.

They should at least be up front with readers, or better yet, stop writing about the person they’re now helping financially. They are no longer objective.

I’m not saying that there was any kind of trade-off in this case. But because of the inconsistencies between what Desveaux reported in the Herald and what she submitted with her AJA entry, we don’t know what the relationship was.

These may seem like minor problems in what is portrayed as an inspirational tale of a woman who was allegedly the victim of a horrible incident and has bounced back. Nonetheless, if the reporter, and the news outlet, are comfortable with these inconsistencies and apparent ethical breaches, what does it say about the rest of the reporting, specifically the two stories the judges did consider?

I am sure there were other stories submitted in this category that are more worthy of a nomination. Skerrett told me they likely won’t be asking the judges to take another look at this.

That’s disappointing. The past year has seen the integrity of journalism attacked relentlessly. Locally, it’s been a tough 14 months and counting for 54 qualified, experienced Nova Scotia journalists and newsroom support staff, and for journalism at the province’s once-biggest media outlet.

It would be nice if an organization committed to recognizing journalistic excellence would help protect it.