April 25, 2018

A little more than a month after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Lee Williams sat down with Marion Hammer, the former president of the NRA,  on behalf of his podcast,  “Think, Aim, Fire.”

Williams’ views on gun control were on full display.

Hammer described how lawmakers in Tallahassee had a plan in place to use victims’ families to sway lawmakers to vote in favor of legislation that strengthened aspects of Florida’s gun law.

Williams shared Hammer’s outrage.

“I don’t even know how you’d sit in a room and come up with this," Williams said. "That is so macabre and evil.”  

Williams hosts the podcast, “Think, Aim Fire,” as an extension of his opinion and news website called The Gun Writer. Williams writes about the firearm industry, authors columns about guns and advocates for the Second Amendment.

There's nothing unusual about a columnist having strong opinions — even being an advocate. What's unusual is that Williams doubles as a news editor at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, assigning and editing breaking news and local columnists.  

In that capacity, he would be responsible for editing breaking news such as the Parkland shooting, or other shootings that warrant news coverage. Williams has said he does not edit coverage out of Tallahassee, where gun control has come up in the state Legislature.

Williams’ dual roles in news and advocacy raise questions as the gun control debate continues to divide Americans in a dichotomy that has become starker since the Valentine’s Day school shooting in Broward County.

Serving at the same time as a newspaper editor and advocate of gun rights is at odds with long-standing ethical principles of journalism that news reporters and editors must avoid conflicts of interest that impede their ability to deliver fair, unbiased news to readers.

For example, at the Associated Press, the conflict of interest policy clearly states that journalists must refrain from sharing personal opinions and avoid political activities:

“They must refrain from declaring their views on contentious public issues in any public forum, whether in Web logs, chat rooms, letters to the editor, petitions, bumper stickers or lapel buttons, and must not take part in demonstrations in support of causes or movements.”

Poynter’s Indira Lakshmanan, the Newmark chair in journalism ethics, didn’t mince words about the situation.

“This is a jaw-dropping breach of the most basic principles in American journalism that allow for fair, unbiased news-gathering,” she said “It’s Journalism 101: If a news organization wants to be a trusted source of impartial, nonpartisan reporting, the newsroom cannot have political activists or advocates acting as reporters or editors.”

Still, while local officials in Sarasota and Williams’ colleagues at the Herald-Tribune have voiced concerns about the effect the editor’s blog has on the paper’s perceived credibility, Williams’ boss said he does not see any issue.

“We encourage people to be passionate about certain topics and to pursue it,” executive editor Matthew Sauer said. “Do I worry about it coloring his opinion of a certain topic? No. He is a professional.”

* * *

Before taking his first job as a reporter in 2000, Williams, a 54-year-old Army veteran, was a law enforcement officer. He started at the Herald-Tribune in 2012, as a reporter, after stints at newspapers in Delaware, South Dakota and the Virgin Islands.

After joining the Herald-Tribune, he started the Gun Writer website, with his boss’ blessing. The website’s first value on the About page is simple: “To protect and advocate for the First and the Second Amendments.”

Williams’ columns often appear in the Herald-Tribune’s online and print editions. The columns in the Herald-Tribune are usually accompanied by his photo, which sometimes include the barrel of a rifle, and sometimes don’t.

The columns range in topics from his trip to the “biggest firearm show of the year” in Las Vegas and the time he convinced the NRA to change its “blended training” program, which allowed people to take online gun courses.

“Many, including me, believe that you simply can’t learn gun safety from a computer — period,” he wrote. “You need an actual instructor watching over the student and making sure they’re safe.”

More than six months ago, Williams was promoted to topics editor. In the new role, he holds one of the top positions in the newsroom, overseeing two general assignment reporters, one breaking news reporter and a metro columnist.

When asked about his roles and its implications, Williams said the shrinkage of newsrooms across the country has led to multitasking among journalists. He also said he does not edit stories coming out of Tallahassee.

“Well, unfortunately the newsrooms have shrunk over the years, and we’re all wearing a lot of different hats,” he said. “Our arts editor writes art stories. He edits art stories and … is an arts (and entertainment) columnist … Our political editor writes political stories, edits and has an opinion column.”

For Tom Becnel, a longtime Herald-Tribune columnist who said he has grown frustrated with the newspaper’s connection to the Gun Writer, Williams’ promotion was a tipping point.

“Everybody knows what I think — I’ve been ranting and raving in the newsroom for months,” Becnel said. “A fierce NRA ally is editing gun stories in the news sections. … It's surreal.”

* * *

In a February blog post marking the Gun Writer’s fifth anniversary, Williams celebrated what he described as a hard-won accomplishment.

He said he had pitched his idea for a gun blog to bosses at every newspaper that employed him before the Herald-Tribune. There, former editor Bill Church, now the senior vice president of news for GateHouse Media, the Herald-Tribune's parent company, was the first to agree.

“He looked at me for around three seconds and then said, ‘Do it. Have it up and running in three weeks,’” Williams wrote in the anniversary post. “‘If you have any problems, see me.’”

The Gun Writer, for which Williams is the main contributor, covers a variety of subjects about the firearm industry. Often, his opinion appears clearly in headlines and throughout posts.

“Hurricane survivors want guns — no surprise — and other random post-Irma jottings”

“Putnam’s response to Florida Carry is insulting”

“A note of thanks to the NRA Board of Directors”

Still, Williams says he doesn’t see an issue.

“We timeshare our heads now,” he said. “My metro columnist has written anti-gun columns, (she’s) covered anti-gun marches and they’ve been great, and I’ve edited them and they’re fine. We are a cocktail of different opinions here.”

Lately, Williams’ posts have centered around the fallout from the Parkland school shooting. His recent column called on Gov. Rick Scott to remove Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel for “lack of leadership.”

The tragedy, marked as the worst school shooting in Florida’s history, demonstrated how Williams’ jobs collide.

Six days after the shooting, Williams published a column suggesting that Florida enlist veterans to stand guard on school campuses. After reaching out to veterans groups, he pitched his stance on a local cable news channel.

Then, Williams said he took the suggestion to bolster school security with armed veterans to law enforcement officials.

Hours later, Sheriff Tom Knight announced a new safety program that does just that. And when the Herald-Tribune wrote about it, Williams contributed reporting. Williams denies that he directed the news that day, but the timing is just one of the scenarios raising questions.

“Of course I have an opinion. I am columnist. I am entitled to have an opinion. I happen to think it’s a great solution,” Williams said of his idea.

* * *

Former and current employees at the Herald-Tribune say that perception of a conflict of interest is prompting closer examination of his newsroom role and his advocacy role.

“I can tell you that’s it's concerning people in the community,” said Barbara Peters Smith, who reports on aging and is the health/fitness editor at the Herald-Tribune. “Our readership is very engaged and I get asked about this a lot. I don’t have any idea what to tell them.”

And there is a lot at stake for a paper with the reputation of the Herald-Tribune. The paper was owned by the New York Times Co. for decades.

The Herald-Tribune has won two Pulitzer Prizes, in 2011 and 2016, the latter in an investigative partnership with the Poynter owned Tampa Bay Times.

Tom Barwin has been the city manager of Sarasota since 2012 and says he’s concerned that Williams’ role could affect the coverage of certain issues.

In June 2016, Barwin’s proposal to encourage local lawmakers to work toward having a proposal to ban assault rifles was the subject of a Gun Writer column.

“The next time Sarasota City Manager Tom Barwin decides to regulate firearms or write firearms policy, he should run his ideas by the city attorney first,” Williams wrote. “It would certainly save a lot of time, energy and, most importantly, taxpayer dollars.”

Sarasota City Attorney Robert Fournier told the commission that the proposal could violate Florida statute.

“To get that reaction — I think — has chilled public discussion, debate and analysis,” Barwin said. “Had we not been scared out of it doing or intimidated out of doing it, who knows. It might have made a difference.”

Barwin said he looks at the journalism code of ethics from time to time and pointed out that there’s a “pretty standard ethical provision” that involves most journalistic pursuits.

“It says avoid political and other outside activities that could compromise integrity or impartiality or may damage credibility of the paper,” he said. “So this seems to be right in that gray zone.”

* * *

Sauer said that he is aware people are concerned, but said there are sufficient checks and balances that assure there is no biased reporting.

“There are very few stories that I don’t review, and certainly nothing on our front pages, or sensitive issues of controversial topics,” he said.

But perception is important in cases like this. Even if Williams has done everything to separate his personal passions from his editing, there’s still a perception of bias, experts told Poynter.

“Even if the journalist is capable of separating his work from what he’s doing in his spare time, there’s a real significant appearance of conflict of interest,” said University of Florida journalism professor Kim Walsh-Childers.

Poynter’s Lakshmanan agrees.

“A newsroom earns its audience’s trust by coming to stories without preconceived notions and giving a fair hearing to all sides,” she said. “That’s impossible to do if an editor or reporter has already taken sides by staking out a public position on an issue in the news.”

Social media policies in newsrooms across the country also echo these concerns. Take, for example, this excerpt from the social media policy at the New York Times:

“In social media posts, our journalists must not express partisan opinions, promote political views, endorse candidates, make offensive comments or do anything else that undercuts The Times’s journalistic reputation.”

Williams’ Twitter and Facebook accounts often toe the line between hot takes and opinions.

As Walsh-Childers put it, succinctly:

“All we have is our credibility. Very often we cannot prove to people we are treating issues fairly, so we have to have people trust us.”

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