Michigan Fox-affiliate Fox 17 apologized and fired a reporter for "failing to disclose his connections to" the subject of his report, the Freedom From Religion Foundation, MLive reported.
The Freedom from Religion Foundation identifies itself as a national Wisconsin-based group "to promote the constitutional principle of separation of state and church, and to educate the public on matters relating to nontheism."
Fox 17 apologized for lack of transparency, posting on the bottom of the July 23 story, "Wisconsin group says Wyoming City Cross must go," an apology that reads:
"Since the storied aired, FOX 17 has learned the reporter on this story has a connection to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and failed to disclose it. That employee was immediately removed from the story and no longer works for WXMI. We regret this unfortunate incident."
As Michigan Live explained, Fox 17 reported two stories about the Freedom from Religion Foundation's call for Wyoming city to remove "a church with a cross on top" from its seal - first a July 21 story reporting from the group's letter to the mayor, saying it "obtained a copy" of it, and second a July 23 report. Michigan Live reported that the follow-up story was unpublished at first, but then "reposted."
Michigan Live indicated that Fox 17 reported on the letter "before the city" knew about it. The Freedom from Religion Foundation letter said an unidentified "concerned citizen who has necessary business in Wyoming" complained. MLive reported that while Fox 17 didn't name the reporter, it appeared the reporter is "anchor and weekend reporter" Jason Volentine.
We wrote to Fox 17's director Kerri Cavanaugh asking if Volentine is the reporter fired, what the station's policy is on conflicts of interest, how it learned about the lack of disclosure, what the station's source of the letter is and if its fired reporter was the person who complained.
Cavanaugh told us she is "not able to comment on personnel issues" and that the "official statement for the company" is:
"Following our airing of the story about the city seal of Wyoming, it was brought to our attention that the reporter had a connection to the Freedom From Religion Foundation and failed to disclose it on air. While reviewing the incident we removed the article from our website and immediately removed the reporter from the story. Following our review of the incident we informed our viewers of the connection and the employee no longer works for WXMI. We take this very seriously and regret this unfortunate incident."
We asked Freedom from Religion Foundation if FFRF leaked the letter to Fox 17, if the fired reporter was the complainant and if FFRF had any further comment. The group's co-president Annie Laurie Gaylor told iMediaEthics that "FFRF cannot divulge who our complainants are or are not" and provided a link to the group's "assurance" that it keeps complainants' identities "protected." She also wrote:
"Just as reporters protect sources, we in this case have absolutely pledged 'your identity will not be divulged to anyone outside FFRF without your express permission.'
"We can say as our letter of complaint did that we were contacted by someone who ran into this egregious First Amendment violation while doing necessary business in Wyoming. A copy of our letter is attached."
The letter, addressed to Wyoming City mayor Jack Poll, reads that the city's seal "violates the Constitution" and that a "concerned citizen who has necessary business in Wyoming" complained. The letter calls for Wyoming City to "immediately discontinue using this seal."
"Since we wrote this letter, we continue to be contacted by those who object to it, including residents of Wyoming and members in Wyoming, Mich.
"It is disheartening, even hard to believe, that cities would continue to sport crosses as part of their logos. Nearly 30% of the U.S. population is not Christian. Michigan has one of the higher percentages of Muslims. Nonreligious are at an all-time high of 19% according to a study released this summer by Pew."
Hat Tip: Deborah Potter