After protesting the policies of North Carolina’s Republican legislators, freelance state government reporter and contributing editor for Xpress Nelda Holder was charged with second-degree trespassing. Consequently, she says she acknowledges the larger implications the arrest has for her as a journalist and her work for the Asheville-based publication.
Holder joined Xpress as a full-time staffer in 2004, worked primarily as the Letters and Opinion editor and retired in 2009. Since then, she has worked intermittently as a freelance writer and editor for the paper. A few years ago, she launched Xpress‘s “NCMatters” blog, which covers North Carolina legislative news. But Holder says she was not covering the Moral Monday protest for the publication when she was arrested on June 3.
“This was premeditated and personal. I did not talk to the Xpress beforehand because I wanted it to stay personal,” Holder says. “Now, I’m back and I have to face the consequences.”
Before Monday’s arrest, Holder primarily covered the goings on in the North Carolina General Assembly. However, Xpress has a clear policy on editorial neutrality. According to the publication’s 2012 social-media policy, “In the public’s mind, you are always connected to Xpress. This makes it virtually impossible to speak solely for yourself, even when writing in your own private accounts during off-hours — and even when you don’t want to be associated with Xpress.”
However, Holder responds, the ethical line of how far to take editorial neutrality can vary from reporter to reporter and from person to person.
“I’ve always felt really strongly about my role and my ethics as a reporter, whether on staff or just as a writer in the community. It’s a hard question because you don’t want to do anything that would compromise the community’s trust,” she shares. “I totally trust myself to do exactly what I did before and do it fairly. The point is, the question is, does the public trust me?” She adds, “The thing that has to be guarded is the public’s trust; if the public doesn’t trust me to write a fair legislative piece, then my business here is done.”
In a statement, Xpress publisher Jeff Fobes says this isn’t the first time his publication has had to grapple with these issues.
“In our 18-year history, we have had to contend with reporters and their passions. After all, we’re a community paper and we promote citizen activism, of all stripes and types. Our goal is to get people involved,” he writes. “Sometimes our reporters take the paper’s mission very much to heart.”
According to Xpress Co-Managing Editor and News Editor Margaret Williams, because Holder is not a full-time staffer, the severity of the situation lessens.
“A freelancer is not on staff. It is a different level of responsibility and duty that they have. They represent Xpress to a degree, but they may work for other publications and they may do other work, other jobs. We don’t own anyone, whether it’s a staffer or a freelancer,” Williams says. “We strive to be objective and that is a goal and an ideal, but we are human.”
For Holder, it was her work covering state issues that prompted her to take a stand.
“I’ve been reading bills that I think very few people sit down and read all the way through — including some legislators. That, frankly, is what drove me to do this,” she says. She attributes her frustrations to,“what’s contained in those bills, a lack of farsightedness in those bills, the duplicity that I perceive in a lot of those bills, the lack of empathy for the general population for this state and anyone who is of a lower income stature.”
However, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a widely accepted set of ethical guidelines for the news industry, clearly states that reporters should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”
Going forward, Williams says that Holder’s contributions to the NCMatters blog will not continue. Citing unrelated budget constraints and ongoing efforts to build community collaborations, Williams says a partnership with Carolina Public Press was underway before Holder’s arrest; the Asheville-based nonprofit covers state and regional news. However, Holder’s arrest does not mean she will no longer write for Xpress, says Williams.
For Holder, whether she writes more for the publication or not, she says it all rests on the public’s trust.
“I did this publicly and took ownership for it, and I’m talking with you about it, and it was a personal statement, not a Mountain Xpress statement,” she says. “It’s up to the paper in terms of where we go from here.”
The publisher echoes Holder’s concerns in his statement. Fobes writes, “Right now, wisdom suggests a cooling off period for her. But let’s see what the future holds. “
Caitlin Byrd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, or 251-1333, ext. 140.