Pittsburgh’s mayor is worried about the Post-Gazette editor’s double duty. He’s not alone.

Keith Burris oversees the newsroom and opinion page.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is pictured.

Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto is pictured.

COLIN DEPPEN / THE INCLINE
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Pittsburgh’s mayor says he’s worried about dual roles held by the Post-Gazette’s newly named executive editor.

Keith Burris — who was last week put in charge of the paper’s 150-member newsroom — also remains at the helm of the PG’s opinion page. Most of the response to his appointment focused on the controversy that has surrounded Burris in recent months and the sharp conservative turn the paper’s editorial section took on his watch.

But the mayor — and some media experts — are focused more on Burris’ dual titles and the potential for conflicts and ethical dilemmas.

“Completely aside of philosophical beliefs or political ideology,” Peduto, a liberal Democrat, said, “the editorial component of the newspaper and its administration of the news should continue to remain separate.”

Peduto said without a firewall between departments, faith in news organizations can falter.

“I would prefer if the Post-Gazette had two different people: one who’s in charge of reporting the news and one who’s in charge of the editorial section of the paper,” Peduto told The Incline.

Burris is less concerned.

“Obviously, a professional person knows how to do it. I’m uncomfortable with news stories that have opinion in them. Opinion sometimes masquerading as analysis really should be on the opinion pages,” he said in a Post-Gazette article announcing his appointment and dual role.

Neither Burris nor PG executives returned requests for comment for this article.

An editorial board’s primary responsibility is to write editorials — pieces with a stated opinion on a topical issue — that represent the voice of the board, its editor and a paper’s publisher. It’s a practice dating back to America’s Colonial Era. At the PG, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief John Robinson Block maintains final say over the content that appears in the paper’s editorial section.

On the other hand, news coverage is expected to be neutral and entirely untainted by the opinion of the reporter or the news organization for which they work, hence the traditional separation between the two sides.

The mayor pointed out that Burris’ predecessor, David Shribman, only served as executive editor, while Tom Waseleski and later John Allison ran the editorial page during Shribman’s 16-year tenure.

The editor before Shribman, John Craig, was also in charge of both news and opinion at the PG, as Burris pointed out in an interview with KDKA-TV.

The Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh, which represents newsroom employees, declined to comment on Burris’ appointment last week but has been critical of him before, notably after the publication of an incendiary editorial written by Burris and published on Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2018 and the firing of longtime Post-Gazette cartoonist Rob Rogers last year.

The Guild has also been critical of Block, who brought Burris to Pittsburgh from the Post-Gazette’s sister paper in Toledo with the announced merger of the two papers’ opinion pages and editorial boards. Burris continues to oversee the result of that merger as editorial director.

‘The appearance of a conflict’

Media experts say while such arrangements are becoming more common, they could be problematic.

Lynn Walsh, ethics chair with the Society of Professional Journalists in Indianapolis, said Burris’ dual roles at the PG “could create (…) at least the appearance of a conflict of interest for the paper, which can be just as bad as an actual conflict.”

Walsh added, “SPJ always points out that while individual journalists may be able to separate themselves from the potential conflict that exists and operate in an unbiased way, just having people think that there is a conflict can possibly negatively impact the news content and in some cases can overshadow the great work the news organization is doing.”

Rick Edmonds, a media business analyst with the Poynter Institute, said this kind of double duty for an executive editor is unusual but less so in the current media landscape, one marked by falling newspaper revenues and increased job consolidation. (There are also industry-wide concerns about dual roles like those held by Block, publisher and editor-in-chief.)

But Edmonds said while he’s concerned that the PG’s arrangement “subtracts from the independence both of the news operation and the editorial page (…) I would not go so far as to call it unethical.”

2020

Andrew Conte, director of Point Park University’s Center for Media Innovation and a former TribLive reporter, said only time will tell if this arrangement has any bearing on the PG’s news coverage, but that with a presidential election just around the corner and the Democratic Primary already taking shape, it’s likely to become clear sooner than later.

“I don’t think we’ll see anything super obvious,” Conte said. “People may point to more subtle changes, but if it’s subtle it’s harder to point to where it’s coming from or who it’s coming from.”

Patrick Lee Plaisance, an affiliate faculty member with the Rock Ethics Institute and a professor in ethics with the Department of Journalism at Penn State’s Bellisario College of Communications, said the history of journalism is one of the interplay between opinion and news. But in this political environment, and on the heels of scandals involving editorial control at outlets like Sinclair, people are watching more closely.

“The thing I’m most concerned about is the credibility of the newsroom and autonomy,” Plaisance said in discussing a dynamic like that seen with Burris at the Post-Gazette. “If the newsroom’s autonomy is compromised in any way and people start wondering why you’re writing story that way — there is a serious potential for conflict if the position is used to kind of frame the news ideologically.”

For others, the separation of newspaper roles is sometimes a distinction without a difference, given the hierarchy involved.

“I don’t have a reflexive objection to the dual duties,” Jack Shafer, senior media writer at Politico, said by email. “If the editor and the editorial page editor both report to the owner or the publisher, there isn’t that much separation in the first place. I’m less obsessed in the chain of command than I am what a publication produces. But that’s just me.”

Peduto expressed his general concern that a lack of separation between editorial and news departments is having a corrosive effect on public trust in media writ large.

“It’s when the blurring of opinion and reporting of news happens that we trust the news less and less,” he said.

As for the tumult surrounding Block and his now-infamous newsroom meltdown this month, Peduto said it’s an internal matter and one that should be handled by the members of the Block family in charge of the Post-Gazette.

But Peduto said he stands with the Newspaper Guild of Pittsburgh amid contentious and protracted contract negotiations that have inflamed tensions between the two sides. The mayor’s office subscribes to the PG.

“I don’t know the specifics of it or the financial conditions of the Post-Gazette, but the Guild has been a leader in producing a nationally recognized newspaper and that has been done because of the quality of the people they hire,” Peduto said.

“I’ve learned as mayor that you can’t just beat the horses. At some point you have to rest them and feed them. The workers we have within the city, we managed to give them raises as we got out of Act 47, and we were still able to balance the books. It comes with the job. So [the Post-Gazette] should find a way to do so as well.”