If you’re a news junkie, you may have noticed a new online media outlet called the San Joaquin Valley Sun. The editor in chief is Alex Tavlian. He used to be a reporter for the Fresno Bee and then he became an attorney and political consultant. Now, on top of publishing The Sun, he’s also doing some campaign work for Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer, who is running for mayor. We spoke with Tavlian and other journalists about the ethics of covering politics while also being involved in the political process. Transparency in the newsroom and media literacy are important topics, especially these days, and we think that discussions about how news is covered both by Valley Public Radio and other outlets are helpful to audiences who want to make informed decisions about their news consumption.
But when it comes to news creation, Tavlian has said he started the San Joaquin Valley Sun because he wanted to create an outlet that examines big-picture stories.
“A lot of times we get bogged down with who was shot or what car accident happened today, instead of what important decisions are being made about your community,” said Tavlian. “If you don't know anything you can't solve any problems.”
Tavlian has developed a team of three reporters who are trying to carve out a niche in areas he feels are underreported, like small communities, higher education, sports, and politics.
“We've had a lot of segmentation in media, and so a lot of people wanted, they were looking for an avenue for a good conversation about what's happening in the region, both from a media perspective and from a policy perspective,” said Tavlian. “So, our first project has been The Sun.”
The San Joaquin Valley Sun is the first initiative from the Valley Future Foundation, which describes itself as a media and policy foundation.
Tavlian is the executive director of the Foundation, while also operating the Sun. At the same time, he’s also doing some political consulting. Right now he’s working on Fresno Police Chief Jerry Dyer’s mayoral campaign.
“There’s people who have said I'm everything from, you know, the mastermind, or whatever, which isn’t quite the case,” Tavlian said, laughing. “I wish that was true, I like the word ‘mastermind,’ but that's not the case with Chief Dyer, but I am helping out on his campaign.”
A disclosure on a story written by Tavlian said that that his political consulting firm is providing help with digital advertising. In an earlier interview, Jerry Dyer told Valley Public Radio that Tavlian has helped with his campaign’s social media.
But is this ethical? When it comes to political involvement, the Society of Professional Journalists, says no. In a white paper about political involvement among journalists, SPJ said, in short: “Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.”
“I think it makes life easier for the journalists themselves to avoid these conflicts,” said Lynn Walsh. She’s an investigative journalist and Chair of the Ethics Committee at SPJ. “It also helps the user see your reporting as something that isn't going to be impacted by your outside work.”
Walsh pointed out that a reporter with conflicts could still cover something fairly, but the audience may not believe that.
“Do you want that to overshadow the coverage of this issue? I would say no,” Walsh said. “I would say as a news organization you want to avoid that at all costs, and you should put another reporter on it who doesn't have those strong feelings or who has not supported that organization.”
Alex Tavlian says that since working with Dyer’s campaign, he has tried to re-assign stories, but with a small team, that’s not always possible. Plus, he says, he has more access as an insider.
“What I've tried to do is shift as much of the responsibility of the mayor's race where possible,” said Tavlian. “There are some things that a reporter won't have insights on, something where I have the experience, and I'm going to be able to publish it. My ability to do so is kind of an important part.”
Some would say that role would better suit a columnist, whose role is to offer opinions, more than a journalist.
“I guess that's fair. I guess the columnist role might better fit me, and that’s possible,” said Tavlian. “To me, my label is executive editor because I do edit most stuff that comes through our door.”
Lynn Walsh, the Ethics Chair for SPJ, said that if a conflict is unavoidable, disclosures are key.
“What we would say is disclose that conflict very clearly, and almost immediately,” said Walsh. “So don't hide it as a footnote at the bottom, put it at the top of the story, the first sentence of your story, anything like that.”
There are disclosures on some of Tavlian’s stories: for example, he’s done some reporting on Andrew Janz, Dyer’s competitor. He’s also written about a former employer, Congressman David Valadao, and his successor TJ Cox. Tavlian used to work for Valadao’s campaign and discloses that. He argues his work there gave him insight most journalists would otherwise miss.
“I understand what's going on in this race, and in fact most of the time, I have more information than most individuals out there,” said Tavlian.
But that’s exactly what a conflict of interest is, Tim Drachlis pointed out. He’s the Tatarian Journalism Chair at Fresno State. The role of journalists, noted Drachlis, is to act independently of their sources.
“Any outlet in America that sees that would immediately take steps to fix that problem,” Drachlis said. “The traditional belief is you want to be unbiased because that's what your readers need.”
Tavlian has said he welcomes the skepticism, and, he said, it’s up to his audience to decide.