The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A mainstream journalist opposed a mosque’s expansion. Is such activism appropriate?


Editor’s note:  This story, about Wall Street Journal reporter Paul Overberg leading his Vienna, Va., community association’s opposition to the expansion of a mosque, omits appropriate context. The Carrington Community Association’s concerns relating to a religious institution did not begin with the McLean Islamic Center; the association in 2003 resolved an issue with the Berea Church of Christ, which was then in the building that now houses the MIC. The story states that the mosque undertook a series of costly improvements, as well as traffic and noise studies, as a result of complaints by Overberg. In fact, Fairfax County’s planning process required some of that work. During the reporting of the story, Overberg declined comment but repeatedly referred the Post reporter to the association’s attorney. The reporter’s failure to speak with the attorney fell short of Post standards on fairness.

On one level, it’s a familiar, even mundane story: Neighborhood group opposes noise and congestion at nearby institution. Legal battle ensues.

On another level, however, the stakes might be a bit higher: The local institution in this case is a mosque, a fact that has turned this into more than a simple neighborhood dispute.

The leader of the neighborhood group opposing the mosque is a reporter, which raises questions about whether journalists — bound to neutrality and independence — can be active players in public controversies.

The neighborhood group in question, the Carrington Community Association, is composed of homeowners in an upscale subdivision in Fairfax County. The community abuts the McLean Islamic Center, a mosque with about 100 members. Early last year, the mosque (known as MIC) sought to expand its morning prayer service; it asked the county to lift a cap that had restricted attendance to just 10 people.

Carrington objected, citing the potential for increased noise in the predawn hours. Last month, the local zoning appeals board ruled in MIC’s favor, lifting the cap and permitting it to expand.

The homeowners group’s opposition to morning prayers wasn’t its first objection, said Sultan Chaudhry, MIC’s president. The community organization’s president, Paul Overberg, has raised repeated concerns about MIC since it moved in in 2015, Chaudhry said. Overberg’s complaints have prompted MIC’s members to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on traffic and noise-mitigation studies, lawyers’ fees, and landscape improvements. “He’s opposed us every step of the way,” Chaudhry said.

Chaudhry said he found no record of complaints by Carrington or Overberg against other nearby businesses or organizations, including MIC’s predecessor, the Berea Church of Christ.

Overberg, a reporter for the Wall Street Journal and formerly at USA Today, declined to comment. He referred questions to Carrington’s attorney and to a Journal spokesman.

In any case, his activism is unusual. Most mainstream news organizations frown on, if not outright ban, their journalists’ participation in activities that could conflict with their reporting or cast them as central players in an issue. This usually means that contributing to or participating in a political cause is banned, lest it suggest that a reporter, or his news organization, is taking sides and thereby compromising their role as fair brokers of facts.

But is waging opposition to a mosque’s expansion the same thing?

The Journal says no. Asked for comment, a spokesman for the newspaper, Steve Severinghaus, issued a statement reading, “Paul Overberg is a well-respected data reporter for the Wall Street Journal and his participation in this neighborhood home owners’ association is not related to his reporting and poses no conflict of interest.”

Severinghaus cited the Journal’s code of conduct, which prohibits news employees from “partisan political activity,” such as “passing out buttons, posting partisan comments on social-networking sites, blogging” or making financial contributions. The code doesn’t prohibit employees from contributing to “civic, charitable, religious, public, social, or residential organizations, or other nonpartisan causes” as long as these activities don’t “detract from [an employee’s] performance” or “overlap with the coverage responsibilities of any news personnel.”

Journalism experts say it’s not so simple.

While there’s no “actual” conflict of interest because Overberg isn’t using his position to influence a personal matter, there could be a “perceived” conflict, said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. “It would be easy for people to assume his activism makes his journalism suspect,” she said.

Culver notes that journalists can become too detached from their communities in their quest for neutrality and thus can miss important perspectives. Serving on the local PTA, for example, could be viewed as a kind of activism, she said, but it also gives journalists a different sense of a school community than reporting would.

However, in this instance, she said, “I think this reporter needs to carefully consider his role in the controversy, especially given sensitive religious aspects and the possibility that it could move into litigation. As a journalist, his job is to serve the public, and he should be aware if any personal activities could compromise that service, rather than enhance it.”

A reporter familiar with the mosque story raises other questions. Although Overberg hasn’t covered religious conflicts, wouldn’t his objectivity be in question among Muslim readers if he ever did? This reporter, who spoke on background, citing company policy, also asks whether a Muslim reporter who personally led a campaign to block a neighborhood church or synagogue would be accorded the same deference by his or her employer as Overberg.

Edward Wasserman, dean of the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, called Overberg’s activities “awkward” but said they pose more of a “perception problem” for his employer than an egregious ethical trespass.

“The Wall Street Journal should be worried that his involvement, even in a neighborhood squabble, will be viewed as religious intolerance,” he said. “A reasonable person could see this as approving the exclusion of Muslims. They would not be out of line to curtail this as a matter of brand management.”

Indeed, the appearance of bias in these cases is just as important as actual bias, said Leonard Downie Jr., a former editor of The Washington Post.

Downie, now a journalism professor at Arizona State University, took his neutrality obligation so seriously as an editor that he declined to vote, arguing that doing so could bias his editorial judgment. But he said he permitted his staff to become involved in school, religious or family organizations and activities that weren’t newsworthy.

He said Overberg could reconcile his community involvement and his obligations as a reporter simply by stepping back. “If I were the editor of the Journal, I’d ask him: ‘Why can’t someone else be the leader [of the homeowners association]? Why do you have to do it?’ ”

Chaudhry, the mosque’s president, said at this point he’s willing to let bygones be bygones. “Our door is always open for” Carrington’s residents, he said. “If they want to join us, they are always welcome.”