By: Joe Strupp
Did Dave Murray of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, cross an ethical line when he agreed to review a presentation the mayor was preparing for an international competition?
Or did he engage in good journalistic sleuthing that led to a news story about how the presentation included some misleading facts.
Since the presentation by Mayor Carl Finkbeiner at the International Awards for Livable Communities occurred last November, some in the Blade newsroom have questioned the decision by Murray, the paper’s special projects editor, to agree to read over the presentation at Finkbeiner’s request and offer some minor changes.
“We were just floored,” said Lillian Covarrubias, president of the Toledo Newspaper Guild. “We raised mild objections to it and everyone in the newsroom was concerned about objectivity. It wouldn’t have been tolerated if one of our members had done it.”
Kelly McBride, ethics group leader at the Poynter Institute, called the potential ethical problem, “minor, ” but stressed that “It probably would have been better if he had not proofread it. As a journalist, you’ve got to say there is an independent issue there. If they had come to me and asked me, I would have said better not to do it.”
But Murray disagreed, claiming he crossed no line and ended up getting a good news story out of it that was at least somewhat critical of the presentation.
“I looked at this as a news opportunity. He called me out of the blue, said he had a big presentation and wanted me to read it,” Murray said about Finkbeiner’s request. “He e-mailed it to me, I read it, I said it looked okay to me. I changed a couple of verb tenses and then it looked cool to me. That was the end of it.”
Mayoral Spokesman Brian Schwartz said Murray’s input was considered valuable. “He read it before it was presented in Europe. He was asked to look at it as a editor who is eminently qualified to take a look at it and offer any criticism or correct any mistakes as far as grammar,” Schwartz said. “It was important that it be flawless.”
Murray then passed the presentation on to City Hall reporter Tom Troy, who reviewed it and found some of the claims made were not completely true.
According to the story Troy eventually wrote, Finkbeiner was taking credit for several successes not linked to him or Toledo.
“? in reading or watching the portrayal of the community’s commitment to environmental and cultural sustainability, some might wonder if they live in the same place as the city described by the mayor and his team,” Troy wrote. He later added, “A fact-checking effort by The Blade found that the community described by Mr. Finkbeiner and his staff in its hour-long presentation in London was indeed the greater Toledo area – or maybe an idealized version of it.”
Murray said he had gotten no complaints from the guild or any other newsroom staffers about his actions. “I am surprised at Lillian’s comments because no one at the guild, no one in the union, has come to me and said they had any concern,” he said.
Editor Ron Royhab also defended the situation, saying, “I think it’s fine and I think his explanation speaks for itself.”
Some in the newsroom were further surprised when the city placed a full-page ad in the Toledo Free Press thanking supporters and financial contributors for their part in the presentation, listing Murray as a supporter. He said he did not know that listing would occur and did not like it: “I called and told him I didn’t want my name in there.”
But Schwartz said he chose to include Murray because “he was one of the people who received the presentation and was solicited for input.”