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.

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