By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
A team of reporters with a Minnesota newspaper wonder if it would be unfair to report that three candidates for public office were convicted for driving while under the influence and driving while intoxicated.
Two candidates are running for county attorney and one for the county board. Two of the convictions date to the 1990s and one from three years ago. The newspaper covered the convictions when they happened.
The newspaper’s editor called the Ethics AdviceLine, saying his reporters cannot agree on whether the convictions, some of them dated, should be mentioned in news reports about the candidates. The editor asked an AdviceLine adviser for an opinion.
“Yes,” answered the adviser. “DWI and DUI are serious convictions enough to influence their votes and the voting public has a right to know about them. The paper’s job is to seek and print the truth.”
The editor pressed further. “Should we investigate, then, all candidates running for office and possible past convictions?”
The adviser responded: “If not you, who?” An informed public makes the best voters.
“That’s a good way to put it,” answered the editor.
Although the editor was asking about political candidates running for office, ethicists might take it a step further and consider the consequences of electing officials with drunken driving records.
The Alcohol Problems and Solutions website reports that many politicians are arrested for drunken driving, although dozens of members of Congress each year escape arrests by invoking their congressional privilege of immunity.
“The privilege was originally provided over 200 years ago to protect members of Congress from politically-motivated arrests,” said the organization, adding that the privilege of immunity “serves no useful purpose today and is an affront to law-abiding citizens.”
The organization lists politicians arrested for drunk driving, beginning with former president George W. Bush when he was 30 years old and Dick Cheney, the former vice president, when he was 22 years old. The website names other politicians arrested for drunk driving state-by-state.
Charges usually involve alcohol, but abuse of legal and illegal drugs might be an even bigger problem, according to the website, but estimates of the extent of the problem “are virtually non-existent.”
Drunk driving kills and injures thousands of people each year, said the organization. “Therefore, it’s especially important for elected officials to be good role models. However, politicians arrested for drunk driving set a poor example. Yet is appears that voters tend not to vote their disapproval of this crime. Perhaps that’s because so many voters drive intoxicated themselves.”
Police arrest over 1.5 million people annually for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.
What do you think? Should reporters publish details about candidates and elected officials arrested and convicted for drunken driving?
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.