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?”

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