Wendy Osher wants to join the Maui County Fire and Public Safety Commission. Assuming the Maui CountyCouncil approves her appointment during its Mar. 16 meeting, Osher’s five-year term will begin next month. As many residents know, Osher is a Pacific Radio Group reporter who often covers fires and public safety issues.
“Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” states the very sober code of ethics of the very respected Society of Professional Journalists, which has been advising reporters of all forms of media since 1909. “Journalists should remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”
Credibility is what elevates journalism above propaganda. Of course, which “associations and activities” damage a reporter’s credibility is a matter of interpretation.
Some reporters, like Jim Lehrer of the PBS show Newshour with Jim Lehrer, take the code to the extreme, refusing to vote in popular elections, believing that their casting of a single ballot influences the world they cover. In the old days, reporters took a more leisurely view of ethics. During the 1980 presidential election, columnist George F. Will secretly assisted Ronald Reagan in preparing for his debate against Jimmy Carter, even though he was also writing about the election in his column.
And then there’s Osher. Since 2000, she’s worked as News Director for Pacific Radio Group, which owns six island stations: KPOA 93.5 FM, Da Jam 98.3 FM, KISS 99.9 FM, The Point 101.1 FM, ESPN Radio 550 AM and KNUI 900 AM. Osher’s news updates run on those stations periodically throughout the workweek, and she also hosts a one-hour news show on KNUI 900 AM each Saturday and Sunday afternoon. But she’s best known for her breaking news reports during times of crisis.
“I take my work very seriously,” Osher told me in a Mar. 9, 2007 email. “I have spent many late nights on the job to provide information regarding road closures, storm warnings and our recent earthquake. I was on the air with the story about 15 minutes after the earthquake hit.”
At least some of that information came from the county’s Fire Department, and that’s why her joining the Fire Commission raises concerns. As one of the nine Maui County Fire and Public Safety Commissioners, Osher will review the operations and budget of county’s Fire Department and Civil Defense Agency. She can also make recommendations on how to improve service, as well as investigate complaints against Fire Department personnel.
Taking on this dual role raises numerous questions. When Osher interviews Fire Department personnel, will she do so as a reporter whose job is to disseminate information to the public or as a Fire Commissioner who has some measure of department oversight? Will her seat on the commission get her access to exclusive information for her news reports? Will she disclose during her radio reports on public safety that she is a member of the county Fire Commission? And will she mention during Fire Commission hearings—both open and closed—that she’s a member of the news media?
“On the face of it, I would say it is a violation of the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists,” said Beverly Keever, Undergraduate Chair of the University of Hawai`i Journalism Department. “I think it’s a real conflict of interest. You’re supposed to be vigilant and courageous about holding those in power accountable, and it’s hard to hold the fire department accountable if you’re part of the Fire Commission.”
Osher would only comment by email for this story. “Maui is a small community,” she emailed me on Mar. 9. “[C]onflicts perceived or otherwise are bound to occur.”
But she vehemently denied that her joining the Fire Commission was even a perceived conflict of interest.
“By the tone of your questions, it is obvious that you are opposed to my involvement in the aforementioned commission,” she emailed me. “Unlike yourself, I don’t view my role as a journalist to be automatically adversarial in my dealings with government.”
On her Fire Commission application, Osher wrote that her decision to apply came specifically from her experience covering public safety on Maui. “My knowledge of both agencies and their role within the community can provide the commission with an additional perspective to work from,” she told the county.
Osher expanded on this view in her email to me.
“In addition to being a journalist, I am also a citizen of the County of Maui,” she wrote, “and, as such, feel that if I can make a contribution to helping improve and/or enhance the community’s level of public safety—it is not only my right, but my responsibility, as well, to do so… If I can help bring awareness on how best to expedite and enhance communication during crisis situations for the benefit of our residents, I am willing to risk criticism from those who are content to remain on the sidelines and simply point fingers.”
It’s an attractive argument. There’s no question the county desperately needs people to volunteer for its 34 commissions and boards.
While Osher denies that there’s any problem with her joining the county Fire and Public Safety Commission, she did leave open the possibility that a “potential” conflict might occur in the future.
“In the case that, in my view of that of my employer, there is such a conflict I will recuse myself from such discussions,” Osher wrote to me. “And if these types of situations arise on a consistent basis, I will be the first to withdraw from the commission.” MTW