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.”

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