Reporter to become consultant on UM system’s messages

Friday, March 18, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 1:26 p.m. CDT, Friday, July 11, 2008

Scott Charton, the Associated Press’ first roving reporter for Missouri, will turn his skills toward gathering information from citizens about how the University of Missouri System is communicating.

“I’d like to know how well the university gets its message out about the things it’s doing,” Charton said. “I’m going to listen to Missourians and report back to Dr. Floyd.”

Charton will work as a consultant for the system from April 2 to Dec. 31. The AP approved his sabbatical in December. He had planned to work on other projects. Charton — who has covered the UM system specifically and higher education generally — is on vacation from the AP until the start of the sabbatical in order to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest.

Explaining the move, Charton wrote last Friday in a memo to the Columbia Missourian and Columbia Daily Tribune that he will examine how the UM system “handles communications and commits resources for communications internally and externally in serving Missourians.”

Joe Moore, director of media relations for the system, said its mission to serve Missourians could not be accomplished without fluid communication among citizens, the system’s employees, government officials and the media.

“Mr. Charton has been in a position during nearly two decades of service in Missouri as an Associated Press reporter to have observed the workings of this state, and he is in a position to apply his reporting skills to the question of how we can better communicate,” Moore said.

Charton, who was based in Columbia for the AP, will be paid $50,000, a pay cut from his AP earnings. The money will come from unrestricted gift income, donations given to the university that it can use at its discretion. “I know from years of covering curators and the UM system that money is tight, and I wanted it clearly stated that the limited amount of taxpayer dollars should not be used to finance my work,” Charton said.

The consulting agreement said Charton was chosen based on his experience reporting on Missouri’s higher education, as well as his familiarity with the UM system’s administration.

“Scott has a long tenure as an AP reporter covering Missouri. During that time, he has developed an unparalleled reputation among both public officials and his peers for journalism of the highest standards,” Floyd said in a statement.

The career move inspired soul-searching in Charton because of how he could be perceived after his sabbatical. Journalists strive to remain independent from their sources to avoid bias and the perception of it.

Charton wrote in the memo that the university system was a “small but undeniable portion” of his beat. The AP offered to allow him to continue covering news not related to the university in the time between Floyd’s offer and the beginning of his sabbatical.

He will not cover the UM system upon his return to the AP.

“I have tried to be totally transparent on how this is going to be, how it is going to work and how I am being compensated,” he said.

With those concerns in mind, Charton turned to people he respected in his field, such as MU journalism professor Charles Davis, for their opinions.

Davis said Charton made the appropriate steps in avoiding a conflict of interest.

“He’s not doing two things at the same time,” Davis said. “But he’s totally shutting down one avenue while going into another.”

Charton wrote he would have no problem covering universities now or in the future but is unsure of his future at the AP.

“I am willing to accept that career uncertainty to work on my sabbatical for improvement of Missouri’s major public higher -education system,” he wrote.

Paul Stevens, AP vice president for the central region, said Charton’s position with the university does not cause a conflict of interest.

“It doesn’t violate either the contractual or policy rules of the AP to do that during the leave of absence like he’s taking,” Stevens said.

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