A Vermont weekly newspaper questioned a fellow local newspaper's transparency and accountability after finding out that it hired a convicted sex offender to report on police and courts. In a late November report, free independent Burlington weekly Seven Days called out daily Montpelier newspaper the Barre-Montpelier Times Argus,for not disclosing to readers or explaining to Seven Days the hiring of reporter Eric Blaisdell, who in 2007 was arrested and convictied as a 21-year-old "for soliciting sex with a 13-year-old girl" online during "an Internet sex sting."
Seven Days published a "story detailing Blaisdell's criminal history" without any comment from Blaisdell or his editor or publisher, the Times Argus reported, noting that Blaisdell described his crime as "devastating." Blaisdell added his conviction was during online chats, and told the Times Argus that "it was never my intention of following through" with plans to meet the people he chatted with.
But, Seven Day's Nov. 28 report, "Offender Bender," reported that it did try getting comment from publisher R. John Mitchell, his son, state editor Rob Mitchell, general manager Catherine Nelson, editor Steven Pappas and Blaisdell himself.
The Times Argus's Steven Pappas told iMediaEthics by email that Seven Days "tried several times" to get Times Argus staff to comment but "for their article, we maintained a 'no comment' policy." Pappas added that it was "doubtful" the Times Argus would have covered the issue had Seven Days not reported on it.
The reporter for Seven Days' story about Blaisdell, Paul Heintz, told iMediaEthics by email that Seven Days decided to run its story because the "only editor who would speak to us on the record -- state editor Rob Mitchell, who is the son of the publisher -- said he was not" aware of Blaisdell's conviction and no one else at the paper would "correct" that information on the record.
"It seemed newsworthy to us that the paper was either unaware of the situation or unwilling to answer reasonable questions about it over the course of a week," Heintz commented, saying he was "disappointed" the Times Argus wouldn't be interviewed for his story. "I believe that if they had done so, we would have been able to paint a more nuanced picture about a very difficult situation."
On the Times Argus' decision not to comment outside of Mitchell's initial comments, Heintz added
"We were surprised and disappointed that the Times Argus chose not to model the transparency it calls for in other organizations. I believe the situation could have turned out differently had the paper chosen to be forthcoming from the start."
According to Seven Days, it learned of Blaisdell's conviction "accidentally, by way of a simple Google search," and questioned Blaisdell's reporting on schools, sex offenders, and minors. Seven Days reported:
"A review of his work during his five months on the job indicates he’s written at least 17 stories about sex offenses — many of which involved minors."
Seven Days' Heintz explained to iMediaEthics by email how he found out about the conviction:
"Though I mostly cover Vermont politics, I also cover the media in our state — and I often write about personnel changes at Vermont news organizations. For some reason, I hadn't noticed Mr. Blaisdell's byline before, so I Googled him. One of the top search results was his listing in a sex offender registry."
Seven Days' report noted that "Blaisdell has every right to work in journalism" and that he has "served his time and has kept a clean record since," but argued that Times Argus "readers have a right to know of any real or perceived conflicts of interest."
Publisher Mitchell argued the Times Argus has been transparent with the "hiring of a convicted sex offender to cover police and courts," the Times Argus reported in its own story on the ethical questions of the hiring. That article quoted Mitchell saying "the implication that we have been less than transparent is ridiculous and downright wrong."
In a statement by Mitchell published by the Times Argus, Mitchell said of Blaisdell's June hiring in part that, "This is an incredibly well supervised and restricted situation by the judge, the probation officer and a therapist, I am not going to second guess that process, am willing to participate in it and give it a chance."
The Times Argus report on Blaisdell's hiring and criticism by media ethicists cited Poynter's Kelly McBride and the Society of Professional Journalists' Fred Brown suggesting that Blaisdell not report on sex crime stories. Further, The Times Argus noted that under "a court-imposed condition" Blaisdell isn't allowed to have unsupervised "contact with minors under the age of 16."
McBride advocated transparency in Blaisdell's hiring and work and Brown called it a "public service" for the Times Argus to now report "the complete story."
In terms of Blaisdell's reporting, Pappas said to iMediaEthics that the publicizing of his conviction hasn't affected Blaisdell's beat. "I was fully aware of his record," Pappas said. "There has been no bias in his reporting." Pappas added that he and Blaisdell "discuss all of his stories to ensure he remains in compliance."
iMediaEthics asked if the Times Argus consulted journalists and ethicists when it hired Blaisdell. According to Pappas, "Yes, however, we do not discuss personnel matters other than to say we use good hiring practices."
In the comments section as of Dec. 2, four readers wrote supportive of the newspaper for giving Blaisdell a second chance. Pappas told iMediaEthics that the general reaction to the Times Argus' hiring Blaisdell and giving him a second chance has been positive. He added:
"I stand by my decision. I stand by my employee. At no time was anyone ever at risk."
iMediaEthics has written to Blaisdell asking for response to the criticism of his reporting on sex offenses, why he didn't comment to Seven Days, what stories he avoids to prevent a conflict of interest, if he expected his past conviction to be publicized when he joined the newspaper, what reaction he's seen to the reports, and whose decision it was for him to cover police and courts. We'll update with any response.