In small towns across the country, limited populations mean closeness between city institutions. The high school principal might be married to the police chief, while the mayor could be dating the local grocery store manager.
Such is the case in Middleton, a small town of just less than 6,000, where residents are fiercely divided over a coming tax increase vote for the local fire district.
This situation involves a powerful tool for influencing public opinion, an entity that can make or break government matters: the local newspaper.
Becky O’Meara serves as the publisher, business manager and writer for the Middleton Gazette, a once-monthly publication delivered through the mail. The paper regularly features depictions of the charms of small-town life in Canyon County: pictures and stories about pets, bingo nights and watermelon-eating contests.
When it comes to politics, though, copy and content grows a little more serious. After Middleton voters killed a temporary levy override for the Middleton Rural Fire District last November, O’Meara unleashed on voters.
“With 948 more voters in this election versus 2012, we can only assume some of these
new voters and some previous ones were uninformed on the issue and didn't bother to educate themselves and know what they were voting against,” O’Meara wrote in an article she presents as news.
As O’Meara noted, voters overwhelmingly approved the temporary tax hike in 2012.
Throughout the article, she makes the case for approving more money for the district. “Progress in a community means growth, and MRFD has been able to grow as well, keeping up with progress, adding 7 more full-time firefighters over the past six years, increasing the level of service they can provide, working within their budget, and not asking for an increase in funding from taxpayers, only to keep paying what you currently pay for this level of protection,” she wrote.
Turns out, O’Meara boasts a closer relationship to the fire district than some of her readers might ever guess. Voters elected her husband, Tim O’Meara, to the district’s oversight board in 2013. He serves as a commissioner with two other members on the board.
Ms. O’Meara doesn’t disclose her connection to the district in her publication, a possible breach of journalistic ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists, a good-journalism trainer and watchdog, outlines how journalists should act in their day-to-day work.
“Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” the society prescribes the preamble to its code of ethics. “An ethical journalist acts with integrity.”
The society lists a number of guidelines by which journalists should conduct themselves. The newspaper’s approach to news might conflict with one or two of the central tenets of the honor code.
Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the code suggests. “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”
The group also guides journalists to “deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.”
For her part, Ms. O’Meara didn’t answer several emails from IdahoReporter.com on the issue. Mr. O’Meara also didn’t answer messages about the fire district’s relationship to the paper.
At least one of the Middleton Gazette’s readers questions the paper’s standards. “It can be difficult to be unbiased when reporting when you have personal connections and vested interest,” Tammy Nichols, a mother of five and 12-year city resident, told IdahoReporter.com Monday.
Even after more than a decade living in the city, Nichols didn’t realize the connection between the paper and the fire district until recently. “I think it was because there are so many families that live here with the same last name, I just didn't put the two together,” she explained.
The lack of disclosure might not be a problem for residents who’ve been around Middleton for a while, Nichols said. Others, though, might not be so knowledgeable about city affairs and connections.
“Middleton residents that have lived here for many years are probably aware of the connection, but those that have not, may have no idea,” she said.
The whole thing doesn’t surprise Nichols. “That is what happens usually when you live in a small town and people know each other and are friends and involved with the community on various levels,” she said.
Voters will head to the polls again in May to decide on the temporary levy.