by John Dankosky - We’ve been getting questions from reporters and listeners about why WNPR’s Jeff Cohen, one of the reporters responsible for uncovering the corruption case against Hartford Mayor Eddie Perez while at the Hartford Courant, isn’t covering the trial for WNPR. Instead, our All Things Considered Host and Correspondent Lucy Nalpathanchil is there, giving us frequent updates.
Well, it’s complicated and frustrating…and worth an explanation.
Jeff came to WNPR as Capital Region Reporter after years of covering the city for the newspaper, including a remarkable series of stories about the mayor done with other Courant staffers. These stories led directly to a criminal investigation which resulted in two arrests, and now the trial. Because of that thorough reporting effort, he’s been named as a “possible witness” by Perez lawyer Hubert Santos.
Mr. Santos has not said definitively if he’ll try to call Jeff to the stand. But the threat is serious enough to keep Jeff off the story. Why, you may wonder, does it matter if a reporter’s name comes up as a potential witness? Why can’t he still cover the trial?
The short answer is – for now – that our journalist’s code of ethics keeps Jeff away from reporting on a story that he may be a part of. We’ve come to this decision after substantial soul-searching and conversations with respected people in our field. The three ethics codes we adhere to at WNPR are compiled by The Society of Professional Journalists, Public Radio News Directors Inc., and the Committee of Concerned Journalists (CCJ). A key phrase that each has in common:
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived
We’ve decided – for now – that Jeff can’t cover the Perez trial, because we want to avoid the appearance that his reporting might be clouded by his potential involvement in the case. Now, I hired Jeff because he’s one of the most capable, honest and ethical reporters I know. In my mind, there’s no conflict. But we need to avoid the appearance of conflict in the public, and the possibility that the stories he writes during the trial may become part of the trial itself. Among the other key elements of the SPJ ethics code is the following:
Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed
And we take that very seriously. At this point, we’ve decided it’s the right thing to let our other talented reporter (Lucy) tell you the stories that are coming out of this important trial in the city’s history. We will also continue to consider whether Connecticut’s journalist shield law will keep Jeff from having to testify – despite any threats from Mr. Santos.
The purpose of that law is to recognize the special place that journalism holds in society. It’s a responsibility to inform the public – to dig deep and to seek the truth. Jeff’s reporting with The Courant helped to shine light on an important story for our community – a story that our colleague Colin McEnroe says really “matters” for everyone in the state who looks to the capital for leadership. We believe that the shield law applies in this case and insulates Jeff from the witness stand.
In this case, it’s a shame that one of the state’s best reporters is unable to cover the trial. This is especially troubling at a time when so many media outlets have lost reporters through newsroom layoffs and consolidations. Now, one more voice for the public may have to stay silent.
As I consider our next move, I’ll be thinking about this line from the code compiled by the CCJ:
Professional electronic journalists should defend the independence of all journalists from those seeking influence or control over news content