Wednesday, December 11, 2013
PORTLAND — A regional journalism award won by Portland TV station WGME (Channel 13) is being called into question because the filming of the story was funded, in part, by the story's subjects.
The Edward R. Murrow Award that WGME won this week for a news series about Maine medical professionals in China ''warrants further review,'' said Ed Esposito, chairman of the Radio-Television News Directors Association, which presented the awards Thursday.
Esposito said Friday that the issue to be reviewed is that the airfare for WGME journalists covering the story was paid for by the Maine Foundation for Cardiac Surgery. The foundation's work in China was the subject of the story.
He said someone e-mailed the association later Thursday -- he would not say who -- about the foundation's involvement.
Esposito said officials would begin a review of WGME's award on Monday and should reach a decision by next Saturday on whether to take any action. He would not say what action they might consider.
He added that the association's officials will try to determine whether the funding of WGME's trip to China was fully disclosed as part of the station's entry.
A code of ethics on the RTNDA Web site specifically states that electronic journalists ''should not accept gifts, favors, or compensation from those who might seek to influence coverage.''
WGME news director Robb Atkinson on Friday called the review ''outrageous'' because the foundation's funding of the trip was fully disclosed to the news directors association.
Anchor Kim Block explained the arrangement at the beginning of the submitted series, Atkinson said. Video of the series on the station's Web site Friday showed Block explaining that the foundation ''paid for our airfare'' but with no expectation of what WGME's story would say.
''They paid our airfare, but they did not in any way influence how we put the story together,'' said Atkinson. ''We disclosed it up front.''
The air fare cost about $750 to $790 per person, round-trip, said Dr. Reed Quinn, a surgeon with the foundation. He said the accommodations for the two-person news crew were paid for by the Chinese hospital hosting the foundation's medical team.
Some journalism experts say that what WGME did -- accepted something of value from the subject of a story -- compromises their reporters' independence as journalists, whether it is disclosed or not. And it seems to be a growing trend.
''This happens all the time in media, when travel writers take subsidized trips and write about them, when reporters accept rides on military aircraft to write about the military, and I suspect this will happen more as finances continue to be tight,'' said Al Tompkins, who teaches broadcast ethics at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla.
''But it's not really a difficult call for journalists to make -- you just don't get subsidized by the people you cover,'' Tompkins said. ''It sounds like (WGME) was trying to do a good thing by covering that medical effort, their heart was in the right place, but they should have put their wallet there too.''
Block, who was the reporter WGME sent to China, said Friday she was as proud of the series as any work she's done.
''This is some of the finest work to come out of our station, and I've never had such an overwhelmingly positive response from a story,'' said Block. ''It was wonderful to show the great work being done by people from Maine. If they strip us of this award, I'll be disappointed, but I'll never regret doing it. I don't think we did anything wrong.''
Atkinson said his station didn't have the money in its news budget for a trip to China. So when WGME had a chance to travel to China to do a story about Maine doctors helping Chinese children and teaching Chinese doctors, the station took it.
''It's really a great story about these doctors saving lives, and teaching Chinese doctors to save thousands more,'' said Atkinson. ''And it's a story we couldn't have done otherwise.''
The Portland Press Herald/Maine Sunday Telegram has accepted transportation, within Iraq, and accommodations from the military for a reporter and photographers embedded with Maine-based troops. The newspaper, however, paid for the airfare, equipment and additional insurance needed to send the journalists to the war zone three times.
WGME's award was one of 540 Edward R. Murrow Awards given to TV and radio stations in 14 categories. WGME's series ''The China Journey'' won the award in the news series category in the small market division of the New England region. Portland station WMTW (Channel 8) won awards in the same division, and region, for stories on flooding (breaking news) and last year's ice storm (continuing coverage).
Edward R. Murrow was a pioneering radio and TV journalist. He spent much of his career at CBS and was known for his coverage of World War II and reports that led to the downfall of self-appointed Communist hunter Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis.
Staff Writer Ray Routhier can be contacted at 791-6454 or at: