WBAL politics reporter Kate Amara found herself at the center of a story, when it was revealed she had personally weighed in on a hotly contested political battle in Howard County.
Amara, who has been a TV reporter and anchor for more than 20 years, stressed her position and journalism skills in an email written to the Howard County Council as a resident and parent, asking members to oppose part of a redistricting proposal aimed at desegregating county schools if it would affect where her children attend.
“My name is Kate Amara. I am the lead political reporter at WBAL-TV in Baltimore, but not emailing in that capacity today,” she began the Sept. 5th message, made public last week as part of a Maryland Public Information Act request. She goes on to describe her concerns, and again references her work: “please answer the following questions for this howard county mom… who knows what to ask, and who to ask it of, because she happens to be a journalist.”
In August, Howard County School Superintendent Michael Martirano presented a proposal to move nearly 7,400 students to different schools in a comprehensive redistricting process meant to combat school overcrowding and address inequities in the distribution of students affected by poverty. At its heart, the issue is one of desegregation, and it divided parents in the county, who expressed grave concerns about breaking up their neighborhoods — including Amara.
Her email is a case study in failing to be clear about who is writing to the public officials — the parent or the journalist. This is a matter of fundamental journalistic ethics, and there is no excuse for someone with Amara’s experience writing in a way that leaves her open to the charge of trying to use her position as a journalist to gain special favor. And there is no doubt from her words that she is nowhere near the journalistic ideal of impartial when it comes to this particular political subject. Not only does that hurt her credibility, it can damage the credibility of WBAL.
In a phone interview with The Sun Thursday, Rose said there are two issues with Amara’s email that he finds troubling.
In terms of journalism, “Her saying ‘I’m the lead political reporter’ can be seen as a way to intimidate” the public officials she is addressing, Rose said.
In terms of the “social issues” involved, “Even as a citizen, in opposing the integration of schools, she’s essentially saying, ‘Keep the poor minorities away from me.’”
Rose said he finds such opposition particularly offensive in Howard County, home of Columbia, a community founded in part as a national model of integration.
To be clear, Amara never mentions race or socioeconomic status in her email. After introducing herself as the lead political reporter, she writes:
"I am reaching out as a resident of [redacted] and the parent of [redacted] School. We live in polygon [redacted]. Our kids are not slated for reassignment under the Superintendent’s redistricting plan…at least…not as of today.
"I am asking every stakeholder and decision maker…to advocate for keeping [her neighborhood’s three polygons] together in the same elementary school.
"Right now, you’re probably thinking “I have no control over that process…” because that’s the basic response I’ve heard …from nearly every elected leader (not including the school board) when I’ve asked questions about the Superintendent’s redistricting plan.
“But you and I both know — that the county council, county agencies and the county executive play a key role in the process — and are largely responsible for how we got here in the first place. And so – please answer the following questions for this howard county mom… who knows what to ask, and who to ask it of, because she happens to be a journalist”
She then lists her questions, which include whether it is “ethical for the County Council to insert itself into an already explosive public debate” and whether “it is wise to add an additional layer to a conversation that is already complex and confusing, and one many residents fear — they will not be a part of? "
She might have asked herself those same questions before sending that email.
She ends by saying: “I am eager to hear your answers to these questions…and I’ll be at your legislative session tonight…in case you do it then. Thank you for your time.”
Two hats are not always easy to wear, but in this culture-wars moment when journalism and journalists are under attack from some of the most powerful people in American life, it is more important than ever to err on the side of the highest ethical standards — even if it means giving up some of your rights as a citizen and parent.
As a citizen, I might like to have a sign on my lawn for a candidate in the upcoming mayoral primary in Baltimore, but as a journalist at The Baltimore Sun, it is absolutely out of the question. It could be perceived as advocating for one candidate over another. The same goes for ballot issue signs: No, no and double no.
The Radio Television Digital News Association Code of Ethics says: "Political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism. Journalists do not give up the rights of citizenship, but their public exercise of those rights can call into question their impartiality. "
And while a case might be made that Amara was trying to be transparent rather than intimidating in saying she is the lead political reporter at WBAL-TV, that argument falls apart when she comes back a few paragraphs later to reiterate it. She didn’t need to mention it at all.
This controversy is not going to go away without some acknowledgement of the ethical problems of Amara’s email, and actions taken as result by WBAL.
“If your job as a journalist is to provide accurate and true information to the community, then you should be held morally and ethically accountable for what you say,” Rose said.
Amara did not respond to requests for comment Thursday.
Late Thursday, WBAL General Manager Dan Joerres said: “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.”
He declined to comment further.