Politicians Driving Drunk

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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?

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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.

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

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