Ethics Issues Raised in Oakland School District Hiring of Reporter By J. DOUGLAS ALLEN-TAYLOR

Tuesday January 31, 2006

Alex Katz, the longtime education reporter for the Oakland Tribune, has been hired as the new press secretary for the Oakland Unified School District, continuing to report for the newspaper on school district matters while he was being recruited for his new job. 

In a terse, three-paragraph article published last Saturday entitled “Schools Reporter Switches to District,” the Tribune reported that “after accepting the position with the district, Katz . . . stopped covering school issues for the Tribune but worked as a general-assignment reporter. Thursday [Jan. 26] was his last day at the newspaper, and he will begin his new job Wednesday.” 

The Tribune published two Katz stories on the Oakland Unified School District after Katz notified the newspaper that he had accepted the job with the school district. 

The revelation comes at a time when journalistic ethics have come under sharp fire on a national level, with several nationally known print and television journalists last year accused of collusion with conservative think-tanks and with the administration of President George W. Bush. It also comes during a period when Katz was reporting on events leading up to a possible strike against the Oakland Unified School District by teachers represented by the Oakland Education Association. The OUSD and OEA are currently involved in tense contract negotiations, with Oakland teachers working without a contract since June of 2004. 

OEA President Ben Visnick, who said last week that he was “angered” by the revelation that Katz had been working on OUSD stories while considering going to work for the district, would only add the suggestion that the Daily Planet reporter “give Katz a call and ask him what he thinks about it.” 

Neither the Oakland Unified School District nor Katz was available for comment for this story. 

Oakland Tribune editor Mario Dianda denied that his paper’s handling of the Katz situation should raise any further ethical concerns. Dianda said that once Katz informed him of the hiring, the editor initially held two OUSD-related stories that Katz had been working on, but decided to publish them after review. 

“The only reason I pulled the stories was because of the perception,” Dianda said. “But Katz has been a pretty straight reporter.” Dianda added that “once it was known that he had been hired by the district, I immediately pulled him off the school beat because of the appearance of a conflict of interest.” 

Dianda said in a telephone interview that Katz “gave no indication” to Tribune editors how long he had been in negotiations for a job with the Oakland Unified School District while keeping that information secret from his editors and continuing to work on school district stories. 

Commenting on the journalistic ethics of the Katz situation, Alternet Senior Editor Tai Moses said that “I would not have put any of the reporter’s stories into print once I was notified that he had been hired. His hiring by an agency  

he was covering compromises any stories that he was working on. Once the objectivity of a reporter and a news outlet has been lost, it can’t be regained.” In addition, Moses said, “The reporter should have taken himself off the agency he was covering once he was offered a job by that agency. I know that reporters sometimes think that they can remain objective in such situations, but it’s the perception of objectivity that’s important.” 

The reporter of this article has written stories for Alternet that have been edited by Moses. 

But University of California Graduate School of Journalism Associate Dean Cynthia Gorney said that unless there is an actual allegation of bias in a story, she sees no ethical problem with Katz’ hiring. 

“This is not comparable to columnists being on the take,” Gorney said. “There are a lot of ethical issues burning up the media these days, but this is not one of them. This is simply a job switch. I don’t think it’s the equivalent of the revolving door between government officials and lobbying.” 

Gorney said that in any negotiation for a new position, “there’s always that dicey period when you don’t want to tell anybody because the negotiations might fall through. If I were his ethical advisor, I would have told him not to let the negotiations go on for more than a week, and if he came across a big story concerning the school district, he should come clean.” 

Gorney added that without knowing any of the details of how long Katz was in negotiations with the district, she could not comment on whether his actual conduct violated any journalistic ethical standards. “But I know Alex,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any question about his objectivity as a reporter.” 

But the hiring does raise ethical questions as to whether Katz should have notified the newspaper while he was in negotiations for the OUSD press secretary position, and whether the Tribune should have killed all of Katz’ OUSD stories once Katz notified the paper that he had been hired by the district. 

According to Dianda, Katz notified Tribune editors on Jan. 12 that he had accepted a job with the Oakland school district. Since that time, most of Katz’ stories with the Tribune have involved non-school issues, including the plight of East Bay evacuees from last year’s Katrina flood and neighborhood development issues. 

But the Tribune published Katz stories on the Oakland school district on Friday, Jan. 13 and again on Monday, Jan. 16. 

“He’d already been working on those stories, and needed to finish them up,” Tribune editor Dianda said. He said he decided to run the stories in part because “if anything, both stories were somewhat negative to the district. They might have even been angry with him about writing them.” 

Katz’ Jan. 13 story, “School’s Growth May Be Cut Short,” involved the possible shutdown of a charter school by the district. The article does not appear to raise ethical questions about Katz’ reporting. 

Katz’ Jan. 16 story, however, does. 

In an article entitled “Library A Chapter In School’s Past,” Katz wrote about the closure of the Castlemont High School Library. “School officials say they’re working to restore the library,” Katz wrote, “which they could no longer afford after Castlemont split into” three small schools. 

One of the issues in the contract negotiations between the district and the teachers is whether the district has enough money to support both a teacher pay raise and full district payment for health care benefits. A Tribune article on lack of district money for a high school library appearing in the midst of those negotiations, while offering comments critical of the district, could also be used by the district to buttress its argument that it was low on money. 

“Unfortunately, this is not an unusual story,” Alternet editor Moses said. “There have been scores of reporters leaving the media in recent years to ‘go over to the other side,’ as we call it. These things almost always occur because reporters can get higher pay at public relations jobs.” Moses called the issue “a tough ethical question for modern journalism.”ª