Civic Groups Beckon Journalists

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists face many responsibilities toward their communities. Sometimes they conflict.

Foremost is the responsibility to report news and information.  This makes journalists highly informed about the politics and needs of their cities and towns, making them desirable candidates to serve on civic organizations. Sometimes an unspoken goal of these civic groups is the hope of getting some favorable publicity.

Editors and publishers especially are targeted for such invitations, which is why an editor of a Minnesota newspaper in 2004 called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for advice.

Pressures to join

Editors, especially in smaller cities, regularly are pressured by management to become involved in community service, like the United Way board, she said. A benefit for the editor is learning more about the community. It also supports the newspaper’s message to the community that the paper cares about the community. Those are good things. But, said the editor, 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. So what, asked the editor, should she do about this?

Clearly, much has changed since 2004. The Covid-19 epidemic for one, restricts the kind of public gatherings that were common almost 20 years ago. And volunteering time toward civic organizations today is less common at a time of staff cuts and vanishing news organizations.

An historical footnote

But the answer that David Ozar, an Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists staff advisor, gave to the Minnesota editor could be helpful to journalists or media executives who continue to be asked to serve on civic groups. Or even as an historical footnote to an earlier time in the history of journalism, when requests of that kind were more common.

“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,” wrote Ozar in his report on this case. The editors comment “was that she is scrupulous about not being involved in reporting about them, 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 see her going out to these things and wonder if there is compromise involved.

Sit down and talk

“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 to the newspaper, but her concerns about the ethical barrier, etc. 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.”

Ozar taught ethics at the time at Loyola University Chicago. He was professor of social and professional ethics in the Department of Philosophy.

Usually, AdviceLine does not know what journalists do after getting guidance from AdviceLine. In this case, AdviceLine’s manager called the Minnesota newspaper six months later and spoke to the managing editor.

What happened

AdviceLine’s manager wanted to know if the newspaper adopted any policies on staff members or executives joining civic groups. The managing editor said he discussed the issue with the editor who called AdviceLine, but “I can’t remember if we put anything in writing.”

But that changed in 2005, when a privately owned publishing company with a handbook on ethics and standards bought the Minnesota newspaper.

“In general, it says it encourages journalists to be involved in the community,” said the managing editor. “It says any involvement that is a conflict of interest or appears to be a conflict of interest should be avoided. We have a photographer who teaches a photo class at the university in town. He gets a paycheck. Is that a conflict? We leave it up to the editor and publisher. If it appears to be a conflict of interest, we say we can’t do it. For that one, (involving the photographer) we’re letting it go.”

Pressures, great and small, besiege newspapers. Some are old and some are new.  Journalists probably always will be targets of invitations to join one group or another because they know a lot about their cities, towns and villages.

AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.

AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

Put yourself in our shoes. What advice would you have given to the Minnesota editor? Was there a better way to answer her dilemma? You be the ethicist. What ethics resources would you cite to answer her query?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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