Saturday, April 17, 2021
April 17, 2021

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From the Newsroom: Community connections require careful stance

By , Columbian Editor
Published:

My wife and I went to California to visit our daughter for Easter weekend, so when we got home from the airport on Monday, we didn’t have any food in the house. That made our decision a bit of a no-brainer: Hit every aisle at the Hazel Dell WinCo Foods and stop by Billy Blues Bar & Grill for dinner.

We’ve been going to Billy Blues probably once a week for years. The servers are friendly. My favorite beer, Log Yard IPA, is on tap. Their chicken enchilada wins my vote for the best Mexican dish in Vancouver.

As regulars, we have gotten to know the owners, Bill and Kodi Gianukakis, and seen how hard they have worked to build what was once a feed store serving farms and dairies into a successful business feeding suburbanites’ needs for steaks, drinks and live music. So when we sat down at our favorite table, I wasn’t surprised when Kodi seemed a little bit nervous that Billy Blues will be the subject of a Dining Out review in one of our upcoming Weekend sections. (She knew this because our photo team had called her to schedule a shoot.)

Although I didn’t assign the review and haven’t read it, I doubt there’s anything to worry about. Karen Livingston, our Dining Out columnist, talked about the “fantastic food and super service” the last time she reviewed the place.

Still, it got me thinking again about how journalists need to walk a line between living in the community they cover but not allowing their opinions to unduly influence news coverage. And above all, we need to be transparent.

Let’s continue to use me as an example. My wife retired a couple of years ago from her job teaching nutrition, food safety and other topics at Washington State University Extension. She frequently got information about her programs into The Columbian, because they were open to the public. It also wasn’t uncommon to see her quoted as an expert in stories about foods and nutrition, and she was instrumental in the Market Fresh Finds column that runs seasonally in our Weekend section.

To me, any mention of her or her programs in The Columbian was OK as long as it received the same attention we would give to someone who didn’t have a personal relationship with the editor. But I was careful to avoid assigning stories about her, and I also tried not to edit stories that mentioned her.

I have to admit it was a lot easier that her job was more about public education and less about public advocacy. I don’t know what we would have done if she was a member of the Clark County Council or in the Legislature.

Here’s another example that came up this week. Our assistant metro editor, Jessica Prokop, is secretary of her neighborhood association. The association voted at its meeting to oppose C-Tran’s decision to drop one of the bus routes serving the neighborhood. Newsworthy? Maybe. But Jessica won’t make that decision, and she won’t be involved in producing any story. She did give us the tip, but the vote occurred at a public meeting, so it’s not insider information. Any neighbor could have called.

It is important to note that we do have policies in place barring certain connections. For example, I couldn’t be a member of the county council, nor could any of our reporters. Although we encourage our newsroom staff to vote — they are some of the best-informed people around — we ask them not to join campaigns.

But back to Billy Blues. What happens if Karen hated the enchilada and the server spilled the Log Yard into her lap? Since I know how great the owners are, would I say, “They were having a bad day; let’s just shelve this review”?

Of course not. It wouldn’t be right to hire Karen to do a job and then not allow her to give her informed opinion. I suspect Kodi and Bill wouldn’t want it that way, either. And, I am still planning to go there for dinner tonight.

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