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Succumbing to pressure is a breach of ethics

Every day, journalists scatter across the globe to tell the stories of the day — to be the public's eye witness to international coups, tragic natural disasters, political mechanations and even the fender bender down the block.

They are meant to be the impartial (as impartial as human beings can be) observers of world events and to use their special skills to reveal the facts of events, small and large.

In pursuing those facts, they face a wide range of challenges, obstacles and risks.

A December 2013 report from Journalists without Borders paints a grim image of the dangers international reporters face in doing their jobs. Journalist killings and kidnappings have skyrocketed in the past two years.

That may be the worst of the story, but it's not the end.

In Washington D.C., President Barack Obama has instituted a closed-door presidency where the press is concerned, fiercely prosecuted officials who who lead (except when it is in the administration's best interest, of course) and so controlled the flow of news that the public has little hope of getting a report unfiltered by partisan politics.

Closer to home, we small town journalists face our own challenges: the occasional unresponsive source, limited human resources, once in a while a disgruntled advertiser. None of this happens often and rarely does it prevent us from doing our jobs.

But in recent weeks a disturbing effort has been undertaken to pressure The Chronicle to halt a series of stories on the cattle ranching industry that center on one local rancher.

Following one individual for an extended period of time as they go about their daily work has become a classic journalistic means to dive deep into a particular subject. It allows a reporter to tell a human story about an issue that might otherwise be dry facts and figures, lending the voice of personal experience to the technical aspects of an issue.

Chronicle reporter RaeLynn Ricarte posed the idea of such a series on cattle ranching to Keith Nantz of Maupin after meeting him while covering a story about a hunting trip for wounded war veterans.

Ricarte thought he would be a good choice. Nantz is president of the North Central Livestock Association, which represents both Wasco and Sherman counties. He is also the co-chair of the Private Lands Committee for the Oregon Cattlemen's Association, a member of the Water Resources Committee and vice-chair of the state Young Cattlemen's Committee.

Ricarte also learned that he was involved with the Agri-Business Council's program where school kids in urban areas adopt a farmer. He visited students at Yamhill Carlton School District for their educational outreach program. And they visited him on the ranch. The idea was to help urban children understand their connection to the farms and ranches of rural Oregon.

Such an activist rancher, willing to take a leadership role in his industry and, in some cases, chosen by his peers, seemed like an ideal candidate. Nantz was initially reticent, but Ricarte persuaded him to go along for the ride in the interest of his industry.

The idea of the series is to follow a rancher through a year’s cycle in stories that range from daily life and culture to the hard issues of the industry like wolves, grazing and water.

After just a few stories, it became apparent that some members of the county ranching community were not happy with The Chronicle’s choice. Nantz isn’t a landowner, they said. He isn’t a good choice.

Whether Nantz is or isn't an actual land owner wasn't an issue for us. He operates a cattle ranch and has worked his way into majority ownership of the operation. From the paper’s perspective, he has as much right to our ink as any other individual.

When direct appeals didn't dissuade the paper from continuing its informative series, opponents began a whisper campaign — talking to advertisers and making false accusations of an unethical relationship between the reporter and the subject. Lately, they've added merchandise to their campaign: a snide bumper sticker about the series.

They've also made whispered and vague accusations of possible wrongdoing by Nantz, although no one has come forward with details or evidence.

Discussing the issue with an impartial source in recent days, Chronicle management has come to believe that at the core of the campaign may be two fellow ranching families with personal or business grudges against Nantz.

Unfortunately, what started as an effort to spotlight the western traditions, modern science and back-breaking labor involved in operating a cattle ranch, while examining the challenges within today's environment, has become a subject of local acrimony.

Does that mean we abandon this compelling story mid-stream? No.

It would be a breach of journalistic ethics to abandon a story as a result of outside pressure. We continue to maintain that Nantz is a solid representative of his industry and a good fulcrum for a story that will continue to involve not only Nantz but other ranchers within the county and the state. We've heard nothing substantial enough to lend credence to the contrary.

We may be a small newspaper in a small town by global standards, but we stand by the same code of ethics that guides the journalists who risk their lives to shed light on dark corners of the world. Giving in to the pressure of special interests would be a clear violation of that code.

Comments

hollygriswold 6 months, 2 weeks ago

Tough situation for reporters and newspaper regarding your series on local cattle rancher. Keep up the good work. Every story has a potential "land mine". looks like you stepped on one. So it goes. I enjoy the series and stories about local rural ranching and farming very much. I am sorry to hear that some bad accusations were made about the reporter. That has got to be really hard. Keep your chin up, and know who your friends are.

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