Ethics of Purging Negative Stories From News Archives

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches.

Would that be ethical, the news executive asked?

It was a small problem then, in its infancy. Today, it’s a hot topic. A French court order holds that search engines must consider requests to remove dated links, including news stories.

In the U.S., search engines entertain appeals to remove links for issues from piracy to “revenge porn” to copyright violations. Editors continue to field requests to “unpublish” stories. “Stay on the phone until you solve the issue,” one company advises aggrieved news subjects.

“There are a number of companies out there in the business of helping people scour themselves out of online archive data,” said the digital news editor of the California media organization from which the AdviceLine question originated 10 years ago. The executive editor who posed the question retired, and a lot more has changed in the news world.

Because the deletion issue is so controversial now, the digital news editor preferred that his identity remain confidential, along with the identity of his news organization.

“It’s been an issue for years,” said the digital news editor, “since Google started indexing news content and since people began to realize that as part of a standard for employers, many look at what you do on social media and what you do on the web.”

Here’s the organization’s policy today:  “What we’ve posted online is part of our record online for publication. Our general rule is we do not remove that. If there is an error in fact, we will correct it. Or if it needs an update, we will update.”

The editor pointed out that policies change, and that could change in the future.

For that California executive editor, here’s how it started 10 years ago. One person, now divorced, wanted mention of the marriage removed from the website. A person convicted of a felony five years ago wanted the story removed, and was threatening to sue. A beauty shop owner wanted the name of a beautician removed from a story about the beauty shop because the beautician doesn’t work there anymore.

The editor asked: Is there anything unethical in keeping electronic archives? Is there any ethical requirement to honor requests for deletion? If it’s expensive to do so, would it still be ethically required? Is there an ethical requirement that a newspaper contact Google about selective removal of items from their search engines?

The AdviceLine ethics consultant at the time, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago,  said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.”

The ethicist and the editor discussed whether there is any significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive. They decided an electronic archive is more useful to the community because it is more easily accessed and searched. Therefore, the electronic archive is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive.

Both archives, however, might contain old information that some individuals might prefer was not easily accessible.

Ozar decided after that discussion that there was no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may choose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All of this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said the AdviceLine ethicist.

Although today’s digital news editor at the California publication was not aware of that long-ago exchange, he is following that advice given by the AdviceLine ethicist.

CBC Acts Fast, NBC Acts Slow

By Casey Bukro

Consider the differences in the way Canadian and United States broadcasting officials reacted when their star performers got into trouble.

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation swiftly fired political anchor Evan Solomon, one of the biggest names in Canadian journalism, for moonlighting as a fine arts broker.

NBC is still trying to decide what to do about high-profile anchor Brian Williams, who was suspended for six months in February for saying he was aboard a helicopter over Iraq that was forced down by enemy fire, which proved untrue. Reports say Williams’ lawyer is making negotiations “excruciating” for NBC as it tries to decide what to do with Williams.

The comparison is interesting because both Solomon and Williams have been described as among the biggest media names in their countries.

Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, officially known as CBC/Radio-Canada, serves as the National Public Radio and Television broadcaster.

CBC acted swiftly after the Toronto Star reported that, for commissions of about 10 percent, Solomon had been working with a Toronto art collector and had earned at least $300,000 over two years, and believed he was entitled to another $1 million.

Solomon had disclosed to CBC in April that a production company he owned with his wife had a business partnership with an art dealer that would not conflict with his CBC News work.

After an independent investigation, CBC/Radio-Canada CEO Hubert Lacroix said Solomon was fired to protect “the integrity of the content and the journalism that we make.”

Reaction at CBC reportedly was mixed with anger and frustration, in part because of other ethics issues that had surfaced in the past. Some called it a “disproportionate response” and Solomon could appeal.

Tim Bousquet, editor and publisher of the Halifax Examiner, called what Solomon did a “crime against journalism.”

CBC’s sensitivity to ethical lapses no doubt was heightened by the earlier downfall of another CBC star, Jian Ghomeshi, who was fired for rough sex with women. He is facing trial on charges of sexual assault and choking.

The Guardian quoted critics who said the broadcaster’s decision to “groom celebrity journalists” led to a “corrosive culture” of stars with tremendous power and little self-restraint. Said one: “When you create these celebrities, you create monsters.”

Meanwhile, the Brian Williams case drags on. After suspending Williams, NBC reportedly found other instances where the anchor had exaggerated his involvement in events. Williams had apologized for the helicopter event, after military sources pointed out that Williams was not riding in a helicopter that was forced down by enemy fire.

“This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position,” Deborah Turness, president of NBC News, said in a memo.

The outcome remains to be seen. The suspension ends in August.

Nothing so far has been finalized in the Williams affair, reported columnist Lisa de Moraes, calling it a media cliffhanger.

The case drew attention from The New York Times. It said the episode “has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture of NBC News.”

Politico media writer Jack Shafer writes that Williams knows he’s dead, but is negotiating the terms of his burial.

In Vanity Fair, correspondent Bryan Burrough says the newsman is too damaged to return to the anchor’s desk. Burrough toyed with possibilities for a return.

Clearly, there are cultural and historical differences between Canada and the United States, as anyone who has traveled the two countries can attest. But maybe it’s possible to generalize and say that among the similarities between the two countries, which are fast allies, is a faith in media ethics. The details usually are messy, but ethics matters.

Ombudsmen Slice and Dice Media, Face Cuts

By Casey Bukro

The thing I like about news ombudsmen is they do to journalists what journalists do to everyone else.

Journalists hold everyone accountable; ombudsmen hold journalists accountable. It’s not a popular job, considering that their ranks grow thinner.

A report for New York’s Capital website points out that “the trend line is pointing down” because “the position is often the first to go when news executives are trying to trim their budgets.”

Associate editor Jeremy Barr quotes Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor, who estimates that about 20 news ombudsman exist today in the United States. Meanwhile, the job is growing in other countries, Dvorkin contends, because they value independent journalism “in a way that I think is being lost in the U.S.”

A pity.

It’s interesting to see how a good ombudsman works, sometimes finding fault with the way a news organization works, sometimes defending it.

Toledo Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry is a good example. In a recent column, Lessenberry tackled questions from readers about why The Blade presents corrections without stating the original error, whether the placement of a political cartoon in the text of an opinion column gave the wrong impression and why The Blade’s ink is smudging a reader’s hands.

Lessenberry dutifully investigates each question and reports back to the reader in a mild-mannered, patient way, admitting the paper is being printed with a different ink but “it also comes off easily when you wash your hands.”

An ombudsman is a modern King Solomon, famous and feared for his divine gift of wisdom. To decide which of two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant was telling the truth, Solomon proposed cutting the infant in half, so each woman could have a share.

One woman thought that was a good idea. The other, horrified, said she wanted the infant to live, and offered to surrender the child. The king declared that the woman who wanted the infant to live was the true mother, and awarded her the baby. The story is more complicated, but that’s the gist.

No ombudsman that I know has ever been confronted with such a challenge. Instead of cutting a problem neatly in half, they are more likely to slice and dice it, as does Lessenberry.

An ombudsman must look at a problem from many angles and perspectives, then come to a decision that might criticize his own organization. By comparison, King Solomon’s job might have been less stressful.

There is an existential quality in the way the job seems to be fading.

The exit of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman in March 2013 brought some attention to the role of ombudsman. Pexton was replaced by a reader representative, a role considered less probing and critical.

Pexton offered insight to the job as he was leaving, pointing out that the No. 1 topic of complaint to the ombudsman during his term was the Post’s online comment system.

“About 10 percent of those complaints were about its functionality, which the Post has improved,” wrote Pexton. “Another 10 percent were from people who feel they were unfairly censored. But the rest were from readers who like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of the Post’s Commenting stream.”

Veiled by anonymity, the posters were just mean and vicious in a way they would not attempt if identified.

Pexton said he originally favored the anonymous nature of those online complaints, but changed his mind. He favored moving away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook.

“What turned me,” wrote Pexton, were remarks by a high school football coach “who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere.”

More laudable, said Pexton, was the second most common type of complaint, from readers he described as “grammar police.” These are “the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post.” Such criticism can be annoying, “but the grammar police help keep standards high.”

In a sense, these volunteer editors are unofficial ombudsman. They don’t really take the place of someone officially charged with investigating missteps. Yet, that may be where publishing is headed.

A USA Today report quoted Dworkin saying that there are about half as many media ombudsmen working in the U.S. today than a decade ago.

“The public is really hungry for them,” he said. And it does seem odd that while news organizations cut ombudsmen from their staffs, they also try to engage readers and viewers via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.

It appears they think social media can take the place of ombudsmen. Wonder what wise old King Solomon would say about that?

Florida Student Blows Whistle on Boca Raton Plagiarist

By Casey Bukro

Journalism student Emily Bloch thought she saw something familiar while reading a story in the Boca Raton Tribune. It looked like something she had written, exactly the way she had written it.

Turned out it was a case of plagiarism, for which the Tribune writer was fired. He had copied material Bloch had written for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, the University Press, about an alleged campus rape.

Students sometimes are accused of copying material written by professional journalists, but in this case the professional journalist copied material written by a student. The case was reported by New Times Broward-Palm Beach.

Plagiarism often is a career-killing offense in journalism, although not always.

A Columbia Journalism Review report found that punishment for plagiarism falls in an grey area “ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.”

It’s an editor’s decision, one that takes a writer’s talents and past performance into consideration. In other words, how badly does an editor need that writer or how easily could that writer be replaced? And, it is no secret that editors sometimes have favorites, known among staffers as “friends of the editor’s” or FOEs.

Editors might look for a pattern of plagiarism before taking disciplinary steps.

In these days of the Internet, much is made of the ease with which text can be stolen or copied and pasted. Cut-and-paste is a dangerous practice. The only good case for it is for citing a direct quote accurately. It is commonly used in the drafting stage, but a writer might forget to recast the material.

Equally easy is finding online plagiarism checkers, or reports that list the latest examples of plagiarism, or plagiarism “hit lists” of famous journalists gone wrong. Where are they now? For the most part, out of journalism.

At The New York Times a reporter, Jayson Blair, lost his job for plagiarism, and another, Maureen Dowd, didn’t.

They were named in a Plagiarism Today report by Jonathan Bailey called “5 Famous Plagiarists: Where Are They Now?”

The so-called “celebrity plagiarists,” for the most part, “seemed to land on their feet,” according to Bailey.

In its report on top 10 cases of plagiarism and attribution, Media Ethics in 2012 named Jonah Lehrer, formerly of The New Yorker, as its No. 1 plagiarist for plagiarizing himself.

“We’re putting him on our top plagiarist list since being busted for self-plagiarism led to his downfall,” said writer Sydney Smith. How do you plagiarize yourself, you might ask?

Lehrer’s blogs duplicated content he previously published for other outlets. He also made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.

The Poynter Institute also published a roundup of plagiarism and fabrication cases, by Mallary Jean Tenore, showing “the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.”

Plagiarism is a slippery slope. One might argue that plagiarism could be committed by accident. But the profiles of serial plagiarists show that it’s usually not a one-time mistake. It’s a choice.

In most cases, it becomes a pattern or a bad habit, perhaps because it seems so easy. And because some get away with it for some time, they might think they can get away with it indefinitely.

It’s an illusion. One of the benefits of the Internet are the millions of eyes on our words, including print editions. Many people are voracious readers of news reports, foreign and domestic. They recognize when identical paragraphs appear in two or more publications, and don’t hesitate telling editors.

A reader once notified the Chicago Tribune that one of its stories bore an uncanny resemblance to a story in the Jerusalem Post. An investigation proved that he was right. A Tribune reporter had taken text from the Post, a publication half a world away from Chicago.

Astute readers are unpaid “copy cops,” and anyone who works for a publication knows what I mean. They are really good at catching errors, among other things, and enjoy playing “gotcha.”

I think it’s fair to say the industry standard is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Penalties can be harsh even for a single infraction.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics flatly says: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

I suppose I fall into the zero tolerance camp for plagiarism, because zero means zero. Otherwise, journalists can argue over how much is allowed and how much is not.

My intolerance dates from my earliest days of writing the 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics. Some ethics committee members argued for a little of this, and a little of that. It was hard to define how much is a little, or too much.

So I decided that it’s best to draw a bright line. No means no, and there is no quibble room to haggle over.

Journalists are terrible hagglers and nit-pickers. The result is a long, drawn-out process that sometimes does not reach a conclusion or a consensus. Get a room full of journalists and they will argue over all the possibilities and change the punctuation. There is a point at which that is not productive. Best to draw bright lines.

Plagiarism is theft. It can’t be allowed.

 

Donations Might Help to Define a Journalist

By Casey Bukro

One of the questions roiling journalism’s waters these days is, what defines a journalist?

One of the answers sometimes given is that a journalist is defined by what he or she does — committing acts of journalism like writing, reporting, editing or producing something that gives people information.

Usually standards exist for doing those activities, such as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Lately, though, some broadcast journalists have shown that they might be confused about those standards, or simply ignored them. Or, are they leading the way toward a new era when broadcast opinion and partiality are overwhelmingly becoming the standards?

The most notorious case is Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was suspended without pay for six months, for falsely reporting that he had been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq. Actually, another helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced down.

Williams apologized for the exaggeration, saying: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” The military publication Stars and Stripes had reported that Williams’ account of the incident was inaccurate.

“The episode has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture at NBC News,” The New York Times reported. NBC is investigating whether Williams exaggerated other reports, and will decide whether Williams returns to his post.

The SPJ ethics code says: Seek truth and report it.

Less prominent is the case of ABC News analyst and anchor George Stephanopoulis, who apologized for donating $75,000 to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation without disclosing his donation to the network, as required. The donations were reported in the foundation’s public disclosure.

“We accept his apology,” ABC said in a statement. “It was an honest mistake.”

Stephanopoulos called the donations an “uncharacteristic lapse.”

His actions led to demands that Stephanopoulos recuse himself from all 2016 election coverage.

Critics recall that Stephanopoulos served President Bill Clinton as a political strategist before moving into broadcasting, despite allegations that he lacked journalistic objectivity.

“But with his acknowledgment that he had given a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation, he found himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs. Clinton seeks the presidency for a second time,” reported the New York Times.

The Stephanopoulos disclosures prompted Judy Woodruff, PBS News Hour co-anchor, to make an on-air disclosure of her own: She said she gave $250 to the Clinton Foundation “for charitable purposes.”

The SPJ code says: Be accountable and transparent. It also says: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

But are traditional standards and values still important, now that opinion or advocacy journalism are so widespread online? If those traditional standards were as entrenched as they seemed during Walter Cronkite’s day, when he was considered one of the most trusted men in journalism, perhaps Williams and Stephanopoulos would not have overlooked them so easily till they were caught.

Add to their stumbles the recent case of Rolling Stone, which apologized for reporting an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, a story based largely on one anonymous source. The story later was discredited by police and Rolling Stone was sued.

These cases, says Stephen J.A. Ward, a University of British Columbia ethicist, point to a “striking fragmentation” in journalism ethics and how they are applied, holding some anchors and reporters to the ideal of objectivity and independence while others are not.

“This only points to the utter breakdown of any consensus on journalism ethics,” said Ward.

The SPJ ethics code says: Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

With changing perspectives in journalism, it’s important for news organizations to adopt written standards, so employees understand the standards that govern their organization. As journalism changes, these standards might change depending on how news organizations define themselves.

Their audiences, too, benefit from knowing what to expect.

Ethics Confidential: As AdviceLine Wins Awards, Critic Recalls Its Origins

By Casey Bukro

It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.

From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.

“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.

And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.

Lisagor Award“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.

The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.

Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”

Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.

What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.

The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.

This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.

“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.

The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.

My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”

It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.

At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.

An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”

AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.

1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?

2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?

3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?

The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!

Journalists Working for Community Groups Face Hazards

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

Editors and publishers often are asked to serve as volunteers on civic groups.

Of course,  community groups might hope to get some publicity, and media management wants to serve their community. But is this symbiotic relationship good for journalism?

That’s what an editor for The Free Press, in Mankato,  Minn., wanted to know. She called AdviceLine in 2004.

She pointed out that an editor, especially in a smaller city, is regularly being pressured by  newspaper owners to be involved in community service like the United Way board. There is benefit, she said, for the editor’s work because you learn a lot about the community this way.

It also supports the paper’s message to the community that the paper cares about the community, she said. These are good things.

But at the same time it sends a mixed message to your reporters because, at a minimum, it looks like you are breaking the barrier between editorial and business; that you are schmoozing with the community’s power brokers like a publisher does rather than staying on the news side of the organization. She wanted to know what to do about this?

The AdviceLine consultant answered this way:

The first thing to say is that an editor who has to do such things needs to make sure she does not influence reporting about these organizations at all, because that would clearly break the barrier between reporting and business influence.

The editor is conscientious about not being involved in reporting about civic groups by leaving that entirely to the reporters assigned to those beats. Her concern is not that this activity is actually compromising anything in that way, but that her staff sees her going out to these things and wonders if there is compromise involved.

“I suggested that she sit down with them and talk it out, how she is being pressured by the owners for this and its benefits and her concerns about the ethical barrier,” said the adviser. “She could ask them for advice about it and elicit their help in making sure that the barrier is properly protected. She thought this was a good way to proceed.”

AdviceLine is always curious about what happened after journalists contacted AdviceLine. So, 11 years later, AdviceLine spoke with Joe Spear, managing editor of The Free Press. The editor who called AdviceLine has since left the newspaper, but Spear recalls working with her.

In 2004, said Spear, it’s possible that the newspaper did not have a policy governing the situation she called about. But in 2005, the newspaper was taken over by new management, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

The new company “does have a handbook and just last week we went through the guidelines,” he explained.

The corporate handbook encourages journalists to “participate in worthwhile community activities, so long as they do not compromise the credibility of news coverage or the independence of the newspaper. Avoid involvement in organizations or activities that could create a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict.”

Also,  “do not use CNHI or your CNHI paper’s connections to benefit you or your family, or to benefit a third party.”

A leading publisher of local news, CNHI serves more than 130 communities in the United States. The privately owned company is based in Montgomery, Ala.

Some cases are not always clear-cut.

“We have a photographer who teaches a photo class at a university in town,” said Spear. “He gets a paycheck. Is that a conflict? We leave it up to the editor and the publisher. If it appears to be a conflict of interest, we say we can’t do it.”

The AdviceLine consultant who handled the case commented: “The question isn’t whether conflicting interests exist, but whether the result is harmful in that it inhibits the editor’s or reporter’s exercise of sound professional judgment about something (or is highly likely to lead others to assume such harm will occur, as was the question in the original case).”

Another member of the AdviceLine team said it’s unfair to assume that civic boards invite journalists for the publicity.

“In my experience, they’re looking for someone with contacts in the community, or someone who can represent a major employer or its union, or someone who can take minutes or knows the web.

“Of course, they might want publicity eventually — or might NOT want publicity for something on the agenda. The journalist will want to think about how to handle that. But don’t discount the other reasons nonprofits may seek out people of honesty, talent and energy.”

An Editor’s Dilemma: Taking Donated Money for Reporting

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

In tough economic times, newspaper managers are always looking for new ways to raise money and pay the staff.

For an editor-in-chief of a small Idaho newspaper, that was always a problem. But in 2005, he got an offer that seemed too good to refuse. So he called AdviceLine and explained his dilemma:

A county commissioner called the editor saying he should have a reporter at an afternoon meeting of the county commission, because the commissioner is having a conflict with the county clerk and expects “there may be some monkey business on the agenda.”

Strapped for funds, the editor could not afford to send a reporter to cover the meeting.

Not a problem said the commissioner. She has a friend willing to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting. The editor called AdviceLine, wondering “Is it ethical to accept this money?”

This is how the conversation went:

Editor: I’m inclined to say so. Without the money, no reporter. Without the reporter, no possibility of a story, something the public may need or want to hear.

Adviser: The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility” and “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment … if they compromise journalists integrity.”

Editor: How would this payment scheme be a “conflict of interest?” How could it “compromise journalistic integrity or damage credibility?”

Adviser: Consider “perceived conflict of interest.” Suppose you are a reader. You read the story that results, which recounts a dispute between the clerk and the commissioner. You find out later, though, that the reporter’s presence was paid for by a friend of the commissioner’s. What are you likely to think?

Editor: Depends on the slant of the story.

Adviser: Why should it?

Editor: Hmmmm.

Adviser: Say you watch a press conference held by an embattled public official. One reporter gets called on a lot. You find out later he was paid for by friends of the official. What do you think, even if this questions seemed at the time “hardball?”

Editor: At the very least I’d re-read the press conference transcript and ask myself what he was up to.

Adviser: What do you think other media outlets in your area would say if they found out you’d done this?

Editor: Actually, we’re pretty much it in these parts, except for trade papers. But what about press passes to, say, concerts, rodeos, etc.? The organizers and promoters pay for them, not us.

Adviser: The pass is to enable the journalist to attend as a reporter, not a spectator. A better analogy might be: What might a reader think of the review if she knew that the promoter not only had issued the reporter a pass but paid the paper a sum of money equivalent to the reporter’s wage for the night?

Editor: Hmmm.

Adviser: I realize small-town journalism is different from the big-city type. The Tribune has a Clydesdale, and you’ve got a Shetland. But the issues are basically the same and you need to adapt them the best you can to your situation.

Editor: You’ve given me lots of food for thought. I’m now inclining the opposite way from the position I had at the beginning. Let me mull it over. Can I call you back?

Adviser: Sure.

Ten years later, AdviceLine tracked down the editor, who is no longer in the newspaper business. He quit in a dispute with new management over, among other things, raising revenue.

What did he do about that offer 10 years ago?

“I doubt that I allowed somebody else to pay for it,” said the ex-editor. “What might have happened? I didn’t cover it.”

But the editor admitted the temptation was great, because he knew that local commission meetings had a way of becoming explosive, making for interesting reading.

“It was so crazy,” he recalled. “In one case the commissioner slapped a clerk. And commissioners gave rants and got tossed out. It was great!”

He misses those days, but also recalls the never-ending tide of dilemmas.

“The buck stops with the editor,” he said. “The editor is responsible. Questions come up every week.”

Looking back on it, the adviser said he should have recommended that the editor adopt a procedures manual, “or some other way of maintaining an institutional ethical memory,” so that he or a future editor could ask, “have we ever dealt with something like this before? If so, how did we handle it?”

Conflict of Interest: What Does it Mean?

By Nancy Matchett

A reporter who covers town meetings wonders whether it is appropriate to pursue a relationship with a councilmember’s daughter.

A community activist learns that the editor of the local newspaper plans to run for town supervisor, and asks whether this is OK.

An editor discovers that one of her reporters is covering an issue he previously wrote editorials about, and wants to check whether her instinct to give the story to someone else is correct.

And a publisher posts a notice that “no anti-fracking info [is] welcome,” overturning the paper’s previous policy of printing flyers on both sides of the issue. This prompts at least one reporter to resign, and she wants to know whether we share her concern that the new policy poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

All of these AdviceLine cases raise the general question, “What counts as a conflict of interest?” Interestingly, the SPJ code is relatively silent on this.

It does say that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.” But the code does not provide further details about what would make a conflict unavoidable, nor does it offer a precise definition of what it means to say a conflict of interest exists.

This is not a criticism of the code itself; it is a reason why ethical professionals sensibly seek advice from time to time.

Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases.

At best, there is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. When dealing with an open concept, testing your thinking against other professionals’ reactions is one of the best ways to ensure that you have fully understood what the concept means.

Whether a real conflict exists will also depend on facts about the particular individual whose interests potentially conflict. All of us have different abilities to bracket off our emotional attachments and understand conflicting points of view. So while one reporter might be able to draw a bright line between objective reporting and editorial work, another might find it impossible to report seriously on the arguments made by those with whom he disagrees.

One of the things AdviceLine respondents try to do is make sure callers are attending to this kind of detail. But even when it’s plausible to say that only the journalist herself knows whether a real conflict exists (the first three cases above could be examples of this), the need to avoid perceived conflicts of interest remains.

Why should journalists avoid perceived conflicts of interest even when no real conflict exists? The answer comes from reflection about the profession’s societal role. The average citizen isn’t in a position to know which reporters and editors can fight which forms of temptation.

And even the most seasoned journalist occasionally might be mistaken about his or her own ability to resist. To protect the profession’s integrity, it’s better for everyone involved if journalists avoid anything that looks remotely like conflict of interest. Only then can journalists and readers alike be confident that the profession is fulfilling its broader obligation to seek and report the truth.

Conflict of Interest: The Perils of Journalists in Love

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives.

By Casey Bukro

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters has been having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the paper covers.

The editor learned that she has sent her paramour at least two stories about his town prior to their publication. The editor intends to confront the reporter about this, but she is otherwise a fine reporter and writer and he doesn’t want to lose her.

A further complicating factor is the discovery that a competing newspaper has become aware of the relationship between the reporter and the mayor, and might run a story about it. The managing editor wanted to know the AdviceLine adviser’s take on this situation, for the reporter and for the editor.

The AdviceLine adviser pointed out that the reporter had violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics – to “act independently” and “avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived” – by concealing her relationship with the mayor from her editor, surreptitiously leaking stories in advance of their publication and then concealing that exchange.

“The other paper’s telling this story before you do anything about it might severely or even fatally impair your paper’s credibility and reputation. Imagine what a typical reader would think,” said the adviser.

The editor answered: “I can, alas.”

Here’s what the AdviceLine  adviser suggested:

“I think you should do something decisive, and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum. Or fire her. In either event, you might consider disclosing the matter in some form to the public before the competition gets a chance to do it for (or to) you.”

The editor answered: “That’s pretty much exactly what I thought was called for before I called you — I wanted confirmation of my instincts.”

Years after the editor called AdviceLine for guidance, AdviceLine called the editor to learn the outcome of this case.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the editor, who left the newspaper after 22 years in the news business. “She eventually got fired,” he added, but not for her affair with the mayor.

The case was brought before the newspaper’s human resources department for review. The HR managers decided that an employee could have a relationship with whomever she wanted.

“With regard to the conflict of interest (of sex with the mayor), HR was not interested in that,” said the former editor.

“There also was an issue of the same female reporter sending her copy to the mayor for review before she filed it to the editor,” he said. “If we had not found out that she was sending copy to the mayor in advance, I don’t think HR would have signed off on firing her.”

Though journalists are guided by ethics codes like the one adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists, HR departments are guided by a different set of standards.

There were “worries about litigation in a highly litigious state,” said the former editor. That was a deciding factor.