Balanced reporting meets scrutiny
By JAMI REINHART
In January 2007, the city administrator spot in Rogers, Minn. became open after Gary Eitel was let go after 22 years. Behind the decision to let him go was the mayor of Rogers at the time, Paul Przybilla, along with two other men from the city council.
Bob Grawey, staff writer for the Star News, covers news primarily based in Rogers, Minn. Grawey was assigned to cover the story of the mayor and the decision to let Eitel go as city administrator.
Within a few days of the mayor being sworn in, Eitel was let go as city administrator after he received his first performance review in 22 years.
"When he [the mayor] was running, he ran in a block with two other guys running for council. His primary goal was to get rid of the city administrator," Grawey said.
Eitel was part of tax increment financing [TIF], which gave deals to insight businesses to come in, which would in turn offset taxes for a few years.
At the time, Good Job First featured an article about how TIF was a controversial issue in various states throughout the country. Minnesota was one of those states. According to Philip Mattera's article, developers in Rogers, Minn. were waiting to see what would happen to TIF after Mayor Przybilla--who had campaigned against the overuse of subsidies--had taken office. Also elected to the city council were two critics of TIF. This gave the mayor and the two council members a majority on the issue.
"We have group meetings on how to cover such ethical issues," said another staff reporter for the Star News, Liz Nelson. "They were a harder council to deal with and they had control over many aspects of the area. Bob continued to talk with them in order to establish a relationship with one reporter. They were not really used to dealing with the media."
Following the end of Eitel's role as city administrator, Grawey covered another piece that featured the change Eitel had brought to the community during his 22-year-long career. Eitel noted that TIF was used to increase and encourage re-development and growth in the community.
Shortly after the administrator had been let go, the mayor along with one of the members on the council, Scott Adams, pulled Grawey into a back room to give him their side on why they let the administrator go. Grawey listened and recorded the interview.
"It would have been quite damaging to his character if I wrote a story based on their version. I wanted to interview this guy and give him the opportunity to answer their allegations," Grawey said.
He interviewed Eitel and presented both sides in his story.
"I knew I was setting myself up to be blackballed," Grawey said. "But you know what; you just have to do that."
After the story ran, both the mayor and his comrade from the council instructed the city staff persons that they could not talk to Grawey. They were told that if Grawey was to contact them that they had to report any questions he asked.
"After that, it was extremely difficult to talk to other city officials," Grawey said. "It was difficult for a while."
Mark Anfinson, lawyer for the Minnesota Newspaper Assoctiation, deals with legal and ethical issues such as this one on a daily basis.
"This kind of situation comes up all of the time," Anfinson said. "It's a common situation that reporters face and it's a difficult one because you can often become very dependent on the good will of local officials. If you have a good relationship with local officials they can feed you all kinds of information that you might not otherwise get, and that's valuable for a reporter of course."
For Grawey and his fellow staff at the Star News, the relationship they have with their sources is important, which is why they hold meetings that cover how to handle certain ethical situations such as this.
"We talk quite a lot and sometimes we talk one-on-one with reporters," said Associate Editor for the Star News, Joni Astrup. "We have a staff meeting twice a week and everyone sort of weighs in. It's really a good process so you can get everyone's perspective. Some people have been here longer and newer people have fresh ideas to offer. Bob has good judgment. They often handle a lot on their own and make decisions on their own too."
Providing citizens the facts from both sides of the story has become an underpinning for reporters. The Society of Professional Journalists notes that the duty of journalists is to be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel note in their book The Elements of Journalism, that part of the essence of journalism is verification and providing the citizen with accurate reporting.
"It does eventually create a significant ethical dilemma quid pro quo for the official; you'll treat me pretty well in your news coverage if I give you information," Anfinson said. "These reporters in those situations run into those situations to properly tell the story, and in Bob's case, they have to offend one of their valuable sources. How that situation is resolved can be fairly difficult and interesting."
As the backlash and negative reaction from several city officials to Grawey's story became evident and hindered the ties that Grawey once held with those officials, he knew his decision to incorporate both sides came with the territory of being a reporter.
"I think most reporters I've worked with believe the ethical solution is to present the story in a balanced and fair way and if the price of that is offending one of the sources, they accept that as the necessity of the situation," Anfinson said.
In addition to lack of cooperation from the mayor and some of the council members, Grawey was also expecting harassment due to the fallout, and was extremely careful when traveling in Rogers, Minn.
"I knew I was going to be harassed at some point, I was just waiting for it," Grawey said. "Sure enough I was harassed by the city of Rogers' police. They knew which way I was coming to the council meetings. They were waiting for me and pulled me over. The officer told me someone had called in a complaint about a car like the one I was driving and told them where to find me. It was an obvious attempt to harass me. Nothing happened out of that."
While Grawey now has full access to information from city officials and new relationships have formed with present council members and a new mayor, getting to that point was not easy.
"Even though you know the information and know the answers, you have to have somebody else's' voice giving you those answers," Grawey said. "You have to make sure you don't just look for people that will tell you the answers you are looking for. I don't think you have to give all the answers, I think that you have to give all sides from people."
Although Eitel and Przybilla no longer hold their former positions in the city of Rogers, Minn., Grawey continues to write for the Star News with the same mind set he honed when covering the story about the two former city officials.
"You really have to stick with it and follow with what you know is right. You can't be concerned with how people will react because your primary goal is to connect the community," Grawey said. "I think I have a lot of respect for the community."