Gray wall of silence in the media: Serious ethics concerns on welfare scandal coverage arise in Mississippi’s largest newsroom

Five days ago, Y’all Politics reported that a former Assistant Attorney General serving at State Institutions of Higher Learning (IHL), Stephanie Ganucheau, who at the time worked for former Mississippi Attorney General Jim Hood, played a key role in reviewing and recommending the approval of the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) volleyball facility that is now at the heart of the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) scandal.  This was a full two years before the TANF scandal became public knowledge.

Y’all Politics has now confirmed that former Assistant Attorney General Stephanie Ganucheau who was the legal counsel IHL which resulted in the improper use of TANF funds is the mother of Adam Ganucheau, the Editor-in-Chief of Mississippi Today, the newsroom that has been nationally recognized for its coverage on this story.

Ganucheau Letters attributa… by yallpolitics

Mississippi Today would not provide a comment to Y’all Politics for the story and Andy Lack, former Chairman of NBC News before his controversial resignation and one of the current founding board members of Mississippi Today, also did not respond to a request for comment.

Journalistic ethics, much like legal ethics, often is discussed in terms of the appearance of knowing or acting improper as much as actually acting in an improper manner.  When reasonable questions could arise as to whether a personal relationship might provide improper motivation for a reporter to act objectively, that is normally where professional journalists seek to disclose those relationships or even more thoroughly remove themselves from that coverage altogether.

Mississippi Today is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), according to its website.

Rod Hicks is Director of Ethics and Diversity for SPJ.  While it is not SPJ’s policy to comment on specific journalistic ethics fact patterns, he did say that it is SPJ’s general view that, “credibility is absolutely the currency of journalists.”  The group’s published Code of Ethics states that, “Journalists should: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” and, “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

The Poynter Institute is also a national nonprofit journalism advocacy organization.  While not speaking to the facts in this case specifically, its President Neil Brown stated, “It’s standard practice to disclose to readers any substantive connection between the news organization or its employees and subjects of a story. It ensures that readers are fully informed and can judge for themselves the full context.”

The exposure of this heretofore undisclosed family relationship featured in Mississippi Today’s coverage now puts a strain on at least the appearance of objectivity in the coverage.  Without the disclosure ultimately exposed by Y’all Politics, readers of Mississippi Today would not have ever known the important context of their reporting.  Their disclosure omission raises at least the possibility of many complicated journalistic ethics questions, real or perceived, such as:

  1. Did Adam Ganucheau not know that his mother worked for the Attorney General’s office at IHL when he became Editor-in-Chief of Mississippi Today in 2020?  Did the Board of Directors at Mississippi Today know that relationship when they elevated him into that position?
  2. Did his mother’s employment by Attorney General Jim Hood’s office impact his coverage of the 2019 gubernatorial race as a reporter when Hood, a Democrat, ran unsuccessfully against current Governor Tate Reeves, a Republican?
  3. Has the familial relationship shaded Mississippi Today’s coverage of the TANF scandal away from looking at what that the former Attorney General and/or his staff may have known about the expenditures and related projects when they happened?
  4. Did Anna Wolfe know in 2020 that her Editor-in-Chief’s mother was the one alluded to in a story on the subject she authored that mentioned the Attorney General’s office review for IHL regarding the USM volleyball facility?
  5. Did Adam Ganucheau and Anna Wolfe know about the undisclosed relationship when they interviewed Phil Bryant?
  6. Did Adam Ganucheau know that his mother reviewed the relevant documents and recommended the approval of IHL documents?  If so, when?  If not, why not?  Even if he did not have a duty to ask, did she have some obligation to tell him given her knowledge of his role in covering the story?
  7. Could knowledge of his mother’s involvement in the story provide a rooting personal interest in a story where Adam Ganucheau was in position to direct coverage and manage reporters to achieve those ends without disclosure?
  8. Now that it is openly acknowledged and credibly reported, what happens now?  Even in stories about the scandal published after the Y’all Politics piece and after Mississippi Today’s writers and editors were notified publicly via Twitter, there are still, as of press time, no disclaimers as to this relationship.

Adam Ganucheau has written and tweeted extensively about the story and has even participated in interviews.

Y’all Politics attempted to reach other media leaders for comment throughout Mississippi, and there has been great trepidation for any of those leaders in the journalism community to comment on the record on this subject first reported here.

Requests for comment from the editors of two major news organizations in Mississippi and one journalism professor at the University of Mississippi went unanswered.

 

 

UPDATE:  On August 28, 8 days after becoming aware of the issue, subsequent to our original story published and in response to this story, Mississippi Today Adam Ganucheau published an “Editor’s note on our welfare coverage” where he acknowledged the lapse and cited the following remedial action.  “We (Mississippi Today) immediately implemented a permanent policy that would allow any reporting that may present a conflict to go forward without my direction. And after continued internal discussions, we decided to add an editor’s note to each future story mentioning the USM volleyball project, including retroactively adding the note to one earlier story that published after we learned the information.”