As a reporter for WBAL-TV, Kate Amara has covered murder trials, natural disasters, local government and protests, to name a few topics.
Since the spring, that has included at least four instances reporting on the goings-on in Howard County, topics that included the groundbreaking of a new court house, County Executive Calvin Ball’s proposals for mitigating floods in Ellicott City and a spate of tire and rim thefts police were investigating.
But in a Sept. 5 email sent to all the members of the Howard County Council and the Howard County Board of Education, she raised questions about a resolution calling on the school boundaries to be redrawn so the district is truly integrated–not as a reporter, she said, but as a resident and mother.
In the body of that email, however, Amara identified herself as the “lead political reporter at WBAL-TV” and asked for answers to the questions of “a howard county mom [sic]…who knows what to ask, and who to ask it of, because she happens to be a journalist.” It closed with a signature that included the station’s name, the newsroom phone number and Amara’s professional Twitter handle.
Amara asked the officials to keep the three sectors, referred to as polygons, in the Maple Lawn development in Fulton at the same elementary school, the full name of which was redacted. She later pressed them on whether it was “ethical” for the council to “insert itself into an already explosive public debate” around redistricting, a step approved by the school board in January.
In August, Councilmembers Christiana Mercer Rigby, Opel Jones and Deb Jung introduced a resolution calling on the board to develop a multi-year integration plan for the county, saying the current boundaries “are drawn in a manner that concentrate students participating in the Free and Reduced Meals program (FARMs) into certain elementary, middle, and high schools.”
Amara’s email, flagged Wednesday night by Baltimore activist Kwame Rose, was made public on Sept. 20, fulfilling a very specifically worded Maryland Public Information Act request for any correspondence between the reporter and the Howard County Board of Education filed on Sept. 6, the day after the email was sent.
Two journalism professors who read the email and spoke with Baltimore Fishbowl said it raised questions for Amara and the station about credibility.
While both noted ethical guidelines within the industry are not rules set in stone, and can vary from organization to organization, they said the spirit of those standards is for reporters to act in the public’s interest instead of their own.
Jan Leach, a professor at Kent State University and director of the school’s Media Law Center for Ethics and Access, said Amara’s multiple references to her profession show, despite statements to the contrary, she might be using her position to influence the officials.
“You really have to avoid this perception that there’s a quid pro quo there, and If you don’t answer my questions this could be bad for you, because I’m a reporter.”
Kathleen Culver, an associate professor at University of Wisconsin–Madison and director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, also said Amara’s mentions of her profession raised concerns.
“The question is, why raise it in the first place?” she asked. “Why have references to being a journalist if that’s not why you’re reaching out to them?”
But the idea that reporters should drop all opinions as soon as they get to work is unrealistic, they said. It’s possible for journalists to be involved in the community while keeping an appropriate distance from the sources and topics they cover.
“We don’t ask people to come into journalism and completely give up their private lives,” said Culver. “You do have kids, you do care about the school district.”
The solution, Leach said: “Just be the mom and go to the meeting and ask the question.”
Amara and WBAL-TV news director Tim Tunison did not respond to requests for comment. WBAL General Manager Dan Joerres told The Sun‘s David Zurawick: “Upon reflection as a journalist, Kate acknowledges her actions in the matter were inappropriate. She will not be reporting on this story or any related stories.”
In a phone interview, Rigby, one of the sponsors of the integration resolution, declined to discuss how Amara represented herself in the email.
She said her office has received more than 200 emails about the measure, “which is a lot for any piece of legislation.”
Last night, the council held a continuation of a public hearing on the bill to allow for 100 or so people to offer testimony, Rigby said. She expects a vote to be held on Oct. 7.
Rigby noted that of the high school students who receive free and reduced meals, 72 percent are concentrated in five high schools, while the remaining 28 percent are spread across the remaining seven.
“Housing policy is not the only reason that’s happening,” she said.
While the school board in Howard County is an elected body that the council has no authority over, the comprehensive redistricting plan presents an opportunity to consider change in multiple ways.
“I think equity should be a part of that conversation,” she said.
This post has been updated.
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