The Herald Bulletin

February 3, 2014

Scott Underwood: Concern of journalistic integrity spurs board resignation


The Herald Bulletin

---- — Editors at local newspapers often walk a fine line between community involvement and remaining beyond reproach in assuring that the newspaper provides fair, objective reporting.

In recent months, I’ve toed that line, working hard to separate my responsibilities as editor of The Herald Bulletin from my position on the board of directors of the nonprofit Madison County Community Health Center, which provides health care for the uninsured and under-insured.

But, finally, after a great deal of thought, I’ve concluded that the two responsibilities could come to interfere with each other, and that some might perceive my service with the health center to be a sign of favoritism on the part of The Herald Bulletin. Others, I worry, might imagine that my affiliation with the health center is an attempt by the newspaper to gain access to privileged information for news articles.

I submitted my resignation to the chairperson of the health center board Friday.

As you’re likely aware, the health center has been besieged by problems, including claims of fraud in a federal lawsuit, the center’s misuse of state-provided immunizations and the suspension of the center’s former medical director for pre-signing prescriptions for controlled substances.

I remained on the board as the health center’s problems came to the public’s attention. I resisted abandoning the health center and its board in a time of great need.

However, I’ve increasingly found myself in awkward positions and unable to contribute to The Herald Bulletin’s efforts to report on the health center’s tribulations. I had inside knowledge of the organization’s discussions of these matters but was sworn, as a board member, not to share information with the newspaper or any other entities.

Because of my relationship with the health center, I stepped away from our news reporting, leaving it to Associate Editor Scott Miley to make news coverage decisions, direct reporters and pursue information. Miley has done an outstanding job of uncovering documents and guiding coverage.

In three cases — twice in editorials (published Nov. 10 and Dec. 26) and once in a news report (Nov. 5) — over the past few months, The Herald Bulletin has attached editor’s notes, in the interest of transparency, to articles related to allegations leveled against the health center, stating my position on the center’s board.

I have also become increasingly concerned that my service on the health center board is raising conflict-of-interest questions in readers’ minds, casting doubt on my commitment to the independence of the newspaper and its obligation for impartial news reporting.

I served on the health center’s board for several years after agreeing to join as a way of performing a service for the community. I sit on the board of directors of the Leadership Academy of Madison County, which helps local people develop community service skills and connects them with service opportunities. I previously served on the board of the Madison County Literacy Coalition.

I still feel strongly that the newspaper and its editor should seek avenues for public service and that serving on the board of nonprofit institutions can be an effective way to contribute to the greater good.

But when a community organization’s conduct becomes the focus of public concern and thus the topic of critical reporting by the newspaper, the editor must reevaluate the boundary between community service and journalistic integrity.

Editor Scott Underwood’s column appears Mondays. Like him on Facebook and follow him on Twitter @THBeditor. Contact him at scott.underwood@heraldbulletin.com or 640-4845.