The Duluth News Tribune has some explaining to do.
The leading print news source in the Duluth region has twice published editorials (here and here) sympathetic to Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline, which is being hotly debated in Minnesota. It’s also published three op-eds by corporate pipeline backers: one by an Enbridge manager and two (here and here) co-authored by leaders of APEX, a Duluth business coalition.
All five of these pieces cite the jobs and economic impact numbers from an April 2017 study published by the University of Minnesota Duluth to make the case for Line 3.
There’s just one problem: the editorials and op-eds never disclose that the Tribune is a member and funder of APEX, who paid for the report on behalf of Enbridge. The publisher of the Tribune, Neal Ronquist, even sits on the APEX board of directors.
Even more, Enbridge and UMD are also members and funders of APEX. An Enbridge representative and two UMD representatives – including the Chancellor – sit on the APEX board alongside the Tribune’s Ronquest.
In short: the Tribune has repeatedly promoted, or allowed others to promote, a very questionable study that was commissioned by an interested party that the Tribune itself funds and directs alongside Enbridge and UMD.
The Tribune’s failure to disclose this in its two editorials represents an ethical and professional lapse. Readers trying to make up their minds about the Line 3 pipeline deserve to know if their news source has organizational and financial ties to the studies it cites.
One reason is because conflict of interest disclosures help consumers of news judge the extent to which the information they’re receiving is biased. This becomes especially important when big, consequential issues arise – like the Line 3 debate – that people need to form opinions on.
The three pro-Line 3 op-eds that cite the UMD study raise other problems. That the Tribune published these viewpoints is not the issue. Newspapers have the right and responsibility to present readers with a range of perspectives in the opinion pages.
But when the Tribune publishes multiple op-eds by APEX leaders and Enbridge that cite the UMD study, and there is no accompanying disclosure of the fact that APEX paid for that study and that the Tribune is a member of APEX alongside Enbridge, it could lead one to think that the Tribune is in on some kind of scheme. It starts to seem like one big echo chamber exists that Enbridge, APEX, UMD, and the Tribune are all part of.
One could also add Minnesota Power, a regional utilities company, to this group. According to documents from 2013, Minnesota Power and its parent corporation Allete have an “Electric Service Agreement” whereby Minnesota Power provides “electric service requirements” for Enbridge’s “pipeline facilities.” Minnesota Power is also a member, funder, and director of APEX.
But none of this is disclosed in the June 11, 2017 Tribune op-ed co-authored by Nancy Norr that cites the UMD study in support of Line 3. Norr is the director for regional development of Minnesota Power as well as the immediate past board chair at APEX. She is also the director and board chair of “Jobs for Minnesotans,” an astroturf group that has been promoting Line 3.
Readers deserve to know if an op-ed writer has a vested interest or a funding relationship to sources they cite. They also deserve to know if the media source that’s giving a platform to given voices and interests has material and organizational ties to them.
With such high stakes involved in the debate over the Line 3 pipeline, the Tribune’s readers, now as much as ever, need transparency in their media to be able to detect bias and form informed opinions.
We made some recommendations for the Tribune at the end of our report on the UMD study that we think can help the paper regain public trust:
- The Duluth News Tribune should retract its September 16, 2017 and July 9, 2017 editorials and disclose its ties to the UMD study and to Enbridge in any coverage of the study and/or of Line 3. The Tribune should disclose its ties to APEX whenever an APEX member writes an op-ed for the Tribune.
- Both UMD and the Tribune should leave APEX and its board to avoid future conflicts of interests.