MTN article raises ethics questions

Update: Right now, the article on the KTVQ site has a byline, listing the author as Aja Goare. Was it there the whole time? Perhaps is this a case of someone at KBZK just not updating the CMS correctly? That’s a possibility.

So I’m willing to walk back my qualms about the byline on the article. I changed the headline and text of this post to reflect that. However, I am not willing to walk back my problems with the reporting and ethics of the story. The same questions remain.


 

I was pointed to an article from MTN this morning that circulated on the CBS affiliate sites across the state, including our local station KBZK.

The article is about Visibly Unseen, a Billings-based group the article says wants to end human trafficking. KBZK tells us that two of its members are heading to Iraq to interview victims and “highlight the carnage left behind by ISIS.”

Ryan Mix and Britney Higgs will go to Iraq for a week and a half, but they wouldn’t tell the reporter where they are going or when — for safety reasons — and noted that the blonde Higgs will be coloring her hair brown and wearing brown contacts to disguse her foreignness.

A few things:

  • The article asserts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS has a monopoly on human trafficking worldwide.
  • The article asesrts, without proof or attribution, that ISIS is the largest buyer and seller of people on the planet. (Even if this is true, it does not necessarily follow that the former assertion is true.)
  • Perhaps only a typo? “Stories of stolen men, women and children sold and traded in the midst of a war zone.” That leaves a sentence fragment.
  • “Higgs and Mix hope to return home with a souvenir for change.” There is no indication what this means. It sounds like the unnamed reporter was trying to be profound but failed.
  • The image of the “all-girl” group (which is sending a man as one of its representatives to Iraq) is listed as an MTN News photo, but a cursory Web search reveals that photo and many others from the session posted to both Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page and to other relates sites belonging to Higgs or Mix’s wife, Janine.

However, there are some serious problems with this story, beyond the sloppy writing mentioned in the points above.

The whole feel of the article, claims about the do-gooders’ plans without any concrete detail about their trip, smacks of promotion — promotion for the group and its fundraising. (The link to the group’s website is inserted twice in a short story.)

The Montana Secretary of State lists Visibly Unseen as a public benefit corporation, which would mean that it’s likely a nonprofit organization. However, the corporation was only incorporated in April, and it has not yet filed forms with the IRS that I could find. It is registered to Janine Mix, a Los Angeles-native noted by the site Yellowstone Valley Woman as “Billings Best Dressed,” who is pictured in the VU image posted with the MTN story along with Higgs and an unknown third woman.

Given its newness, VU’s nonprofit status for fundraising is in doubt in my mind, as is its claim on its website that “Your generous donation is 100% tax deductible”.

Visibly Unseen’s Facebook page has a number of postings mentioning the group’s growing involvement with a preacher named Victor Marx, who operates All Things Possible Ministry out of California but recently passed through Montana. Indeed, Marx, whose site boasts that he is the fastest gun disarm man in the world, appeared recently in Bozeman and Visibly Unseen served as his film crew.

A later posting to Facebook notes that VU was picked to film a documentary of Marx’s trip to northern Iraq. This came immediately after a June 17 posting saying VU would be partnering with Marx on his nonprofit’s next “global high risk mission as the documentary film crew.”

From what I can see, it feels more like VU is serving as film crew for someone else’s documentary about human trafficking in Iraq rather than spurring its own project. That feels to me like a reporter who didn’t ask the right questions before putting this group’s representatives on air to provide a clear picture to viewers.

The most disturbing thing, to me, is that the article allows a group to make a public plea for money without the due dilligence of explaining exactly what VU plans to do with that money.

This leads me to wonder just what involvement MTN’s reporter may have with the group to allow VU to put it’s own unverified claims on air and online.