By Mara Brooks, Editor
As many of our readers know, in March former Charlotte News editor Chea Waters Evans and this paper parted ways following months of Evans’ controversial reporting on alleged conflicts of interest at the Zoning Board of Adjustment. Soon after, several The Charlotte News board members, including the paper’s then-publisher Claudia Marshall, also jumped ship. In the weeks that followed, Evans gave statements to several Vermont news outlets suggesting The News’s own conflicts had played a role in her sudden departure. (Marshall is married to former zoning board member Matt Zucker.) The resulting scandal left some readers wondering if The Charlotte News could be trusted to report objectively and allow its reporters to pursue stories without interference.
As an LA transplant who moved to Vermont just three years ago, I’ve often felt self-conscious of my flatlander status in the close-knit towns that make up this magical state. But when I learned my first assignment for The Charlotte News was to investigate the town’s conflicts of interest scandal, for once I thought my lack of local roots might be a good thing. My deep dive into Charlotte’s seedy underbelly (ha!) was a crash course in local politics and the nuances of balanced reporting. It also got me thinking hard about conflicts of interest and the issue of transparency.
Conflicts of interest are all but built into small-town politics, and citizens holding seats on more than one board at the same time is a fairly common (and legal) practice in Vermont. Conflicts can also exist between a local newspaper and the town officials it covers, or in cases where a reporter is friends with one of their sources. Ideally, a reporter with conflicts can pass the story off to another writer, but what if there are no other writers? What if the sole investigative reporter at a paper doubles as its editor?
If there’s one thing I learned while investigating this story it’s that bias is in the eye of the beholder—and in a town of only 3,800 people, there are plenty of accusations to go around. (See my report on the ZBA scandal below.)
Much has been written in the local press recently about the need for transparency among public officials—and community newspapers. But while transparency is a start, it does not equal accountability or provide the tools to measure or mitigate the conflicts it exposes. Instead, for better or worse, the public is left to speculate about the integrity of those implicated. To suggest transparency is enough to combat conflicts of interest is to distract from the issue of the conflicts themselves.
At their best, news journalists can serve as watchdogs for the community with the power to expose corruption that might otherwise go unchecked. For that reason, reporters must diligently check our own biases before sending a story to print. If we’re too eager to be the town crusader, we risk distorting the facts. If we’re intent on finding scandal, we can lose perspective and unfairly damage reputations. The simple act of emphasizing some facts while minimizing others can result in biased reporting or conjecture disguised as hard news. And bias, which is often unconscious, can be difficult to self-detect.
I accepted the job as editor of The Charlotte News because I was impressed by what I found here: a small group of dedicated people, mostly volunteers, who care deeply about their town. I’ve been told by those who hired me to go where the facts lead and to report the news as I see fit. I currently have no conflicts of interest in Charlotte, but in time that could change. Our team is already drafting a new, detailed set of policies to address a variety of ethical conundrums to ensure the continued integrity of our paper.
I’m excited to work with our small but brilliant editorial team, and I look forward to getting to know our readers. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy and trust the stories we bring you about this unique and beautiful town. Feel free to drop me a line and by all means: send news.