Changes made at BSU radio after complaint

By Audrey Dutton

Editor’s note: This article first appeared Dec. 15 in the Idaho Statesman; it is reprinted here.

Two staff members at Boise State Public Radio complained to managers in February, citing concerns “that undue influence from Boise State University threatens to compromise our journalistic ethics.”

Reporters Emilie Ritter Saunders and Adam Cotterell said the journalistic firewall between the newsroom and Boise State, which holds the broadcast license for the station, had “dangerously eroded” over four years.

The reporters did not name university President Bob Kustra but said his office “and his staff repeatedly attempt to pressure Boise State Public Radio to produce content more in line with the university’s public relations engine than with journalism.”

In the complaint, the two wrote, “It takes just one instance of actual or perceived improper influence to forever damage the credibility of Boise State Public Radio and its reporters.”

The university’s vice president for campus operations and general counsel investigated the complaint and found no wrongdoing. However, the university moved the station out of the Office of the President and into the Extended Studies department. The station’s longtime general manager, John Hess, began to report to the Extended Studies dean, Mark Wheeler, instead of to Kustra.

The complaint came to light last week after Hess resigned as the station was starting its winter pledge drive. But the Statesman could not determine whether Hess’s resignation was related to the complaint or its aftermath. A university spokesman declined to say whether Hess’s departure was related to the complaint, saying it is a personnel issue. A message for Hess was not immediately returned Monday.

News Director Scott Graf told the Statesman that the ethics code was “one of John’s last major efforts here at the station — to get everybody discussing this and come up with something that was going to be agreeable to everyone involved.”

Graf also said “things have improved considerably” since Saunders and Cotterell raised their concerns.

After reviewing the complaint, Kevin Satterlee, Boise State’s general counsel, wrote a “complaint resolution” memo in April. Because the university holds the license, Satterlee wrote, it has “sole authority to determine programming content pursuant to the terms of the [Federal Communications Commission] license.”

The complaint cited events starting in 2012, when then-News Director Sadie Babits told herstaff that Kustra “had complained that news stories included too many experts from other universities and not enough from BSU.”

The complaint cited examples of an eroded firewall, including:

▪  The station sent two reporters to cover Kustra’s annual State of the University speech in 2014. The station “doesn’t cover similar speeches made by Idaho’s other institutions of higher education.”

Satterlee responded that every news outlet “must acknowledge and accept the existence of its host organization.” He said it was not unreasonable for the university to ask for coverage of events, but that it was “less clear” whether the station had an “obligation to cover a university-related story it does not believe is ‘newsworthy.’”

He chalked it up to a lack of understanding about the relationship between the two entities and said it was the job of station management “to ensure that reporters understand the difference between guidance and coercion, are not caught in the middle, and understand their responsibilities [to everyone].”

▪  The newsroom was “pressured by the university” to cover President Barack Obama’s January visit to Boise “in a way that focused on the university itself and put the school in a favorable light.” Obama toured a Boise State innovation lab and highlighted the university in his speech, which he gave on campus.

Satterlee said the complaint “appears to be the result of a lack of communication between the university and BSPR.”

He concluded by saying there was no evidence the newsroom was discouraged from “practicing rigorous and independent journalism as alleged.” But he said the credibility of the station “is critical” and suggested the university and station meet to review and adopt a new ethics code.

Wheeler said, “The university has always believed that a vibrant and unbiased news product is vital to the quality of the station, and has endorsed the station’s proposed code of editorial integrity to continue to ensure that in the future.”

The station’s community advisory board and the university administration recently agreed on the code, according to people involved. The board will meet soon to vote on adopting it.

Saunders left the station in May to take a job as communications director for the Montana Office of Public Instruction. Cotterell still works there.

“I think with any news organization, you’ve got the people who pay you, and you’ve got the news you need to cover. And there’s a natural tension there,” said board chair Emily Walton. “I know the reporters at Boise State Public Radio have a lot of integrity. … I appreciate both organizations a lot and want them both to do very well.”

Audrey Dutton is an Idaho Statesman reporter and a 2015 fellow of the Idaho Media Initiative at Boise State University, and has produced work for Boise State Public Radio; she also serves on the Idaho Press Club’s Southwest Chapter board.