Category Archives: Conflict of interest

Election Ethics Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Elections often are seen as a chance to toss the rascals out of office.

But what if a reporter is worried that his work might allow a rascal to get into office?

That was the dilemma facing Victor Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics Magazine years ago. It was a dilemma that often faces political reporters: How information harmful to one political candidate might favor an opposing candidate.

Crown called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It was among the first calls to AdviceLine, which began operating on Jan. 22, 2001.

Something Bad to Happen

“I am about to do a story that may cause something bad to happen,” Crown told Dr. David Ozar, an AdviceLine call-taker who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Crown was writing an article about alleged conflicts of interest by republican U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois — described by Crown as a banking lawyer, a bank stockholder and a bank director — and his voting record on banking bills.

Publishing the story could prove helpful to a Fitzgerald political rival, and Crown feared that might be the worst of two evils.

“So he is wondering if he should sit on the story and not publish it, in order to avoid the potentially good consequences for a (rival) public official he does not trust or respect,” Ozar wrote in his report on this case.

AdviceLine cases usually are considered confidential, but Crown gave his permission for his case to be made public.

Someone To Talk To

As in most calls from journalists, Crown was looking for somebody to talk to about his ethics-in-government dilemma. Journalists sometimes call to confirm whether the manner in which they handled a story was ethically correct.

“We talked at length about weighing the professional obligation to tell the truth with courage against the potential negative effects of doing so…,” wrote Ozar. “Since conflict of interest on the part of the person being investigated is in itself a subtle ethical matter, there was also a lot of conversation between us about harmful versus non-harmful conflicts…”

In effect, Ozar urged Crown to follow one of the leading concepts of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: Seek the truth and report it.

Releasing The Information

In the end, Crown put all of his investigative information on a web site, so it could be examined by other journalists and the public to determine how well his evidence supported his report on Fitzgerald.

Crown took this action after discussing it with Ozar, who wrote: “I also judged that this is the most impartial way to release this information.”

Ozar concluded that Crown decided to publish “because it is the professionally right thing to do and because the other moral/ethical considerations in the matter are not sufficiently weighty to outweigh his professional commitments.”

Fitzgerald served in the U.S. senate from 1999 until his retirement in 2005, when he decided not to run for reelection. He was followed by democrat Barack Obama, who won in a landslide, becoming the senate’s only African-American member.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled about 1,000 inquiries since it began operating in 2001.

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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.

 

 

Ethics Quiz Answers

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

No doubt you’ve been waiting for the answers to that journalism ethics quiz posted earlier featuring samples of questions answered in the past by the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Some people just can’t resist matching their wits with AdviceLine ethics gurus who answer queries from professional journalists, some of them on deadline. That’s what AdviceLine, a free service, does.

In many cases, answering ethics questions is like walking a tight-rope. AdviceLine advisors don’t tell callers what to do. Instead, the advisors engage callers in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in each case, leading journalists to make their own decisions.

For those just tuning in, let me explain. AdviceLine is staffed by four university professors trained in ethics. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our goal is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that are well informed by standards of professional journalistic practice. So let’s get started.

Case One

Case one involved a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. She asked the news editor of a major metropolitan daily to remove her name from a high-interest story about the conflict. In a similar case, a California editor says he is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s electronic archives. They include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about news organizations keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor such requests?

AdviceLine advisors write a detailed report on each query. David Ozar, emeritus professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, was the advisor in this case. The call came from the executive editor of a California community newspaper.

“We discussed the reason for archives as the starting point for sorting out the ethics here,” Ozar wrote, “since this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record, which of its very nature is therefore historical (and) has information in it which is now outdated.”

Ethics of Archives

Ozar discussed with the editor whether there is a significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive? The answer is two-fold: The electronic archive is much more useful to the community because it is so much more easily accessed and searched. It is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive would be. But by the same token, searching each of them means that old information that some individuals might prefer to not have so accessible is readily accessible.

But now we can ask if there is an ethical difference between paper and electronic archives that leads to an obligation to block access when requested in the electronic one and not so in the paper one? “The answer seems to be no,” writes Ozar. If newspapers want to assist concerned individuals,  they “should not do so by removing information from the historical record.”

A newspaper may choose to see if Google will assist these people, or may choose to cooperate with Google if Google decides to help these people. But, the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access, and in fact should view it as being, at most, an act of kindness (that is not unethical) rather than something they are ethically bound to do.

“All of this assumes, of course,” writes Ozar. “that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing.” Corrections should be electronically linked to the original stories so searchers see the corrections.

Case Two

Case two: The publisher of a Tennessee newspaper called AdviceLine, saying “I have a difficult confidentiality problem.” He is a member of the board of directors of the local United Way, a national coalition of charitable organizations. The publisher learned at an emergency board meeting called by the organization’s new executive director that the previous executive director failed to file federal IRS forms for not-for-profits and the local owes the federal government more than $20,000. The local would be fined $90 a day and risks losing its not-for-profit status if it fails to act within six weeks.

The publisher wants to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation is fixed? A United Way fund-raising campaign was under way at this time.

This case proved to be vexing to the AdviceLine volunteer staff, which includes both the university ethics experts who answer queries and professional journalists who understand newsroom practices. This case showed how ethicists themselves can disagree on what is ethical. The university ethicists and the professional journalists periodically met to review the cases to discuss how well the university ethicists responded to queries. In this case, they clashed.

In his report on the case, Ozar said, “we talked at length about benefit and harm.” They agreed that the public will likely be upset at this situation, but “there is no great loss to the public in not knowing this right at this time, whereas there is good reason to believe that, even with the corrective action already taken…, many people might reduce their contributions and many potential beneficiaries of United Way might suffer accordingly. That is, reporting this matter right now seems to produce more harm than benefit to the public.”

Confidentiality

Ozar reported that the publisher wondered if preserving the board’s confidentiality might appear to them and later to the public that he was involved in covering up something that, as a journalist, he should have reported. But Ozar talked him out of it, saying withholding the information for a time could be justified “from a professional ethics point of view” and even by the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Ozar and I exchanged emails on this report, and I told him that his advice was “flat-out wrong.” The publisher’s responsibilities, I argued, were to his newspaper and to the community, not to United Way. Malfeasance at the United Way is a story the community deserves to know immediately. And, I added, Ozar was wrong about his interpretation of the SPJ code of ethics. It says: “Seek Truth and Report It.”

This case was a clear example whereby publishers who join civic groups open themselves to conflicts of interest. The credibility of the paper and the publisher could be seriously damaged once the public learns the paper delayed reporting the story.

Even one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls disagreed with Ozar’s advice, saying, “I am afraid I would not have given the same advice. The journalist’s job is to seek the truth and report it. Sitting on this kind of information can only deepen the public’s suspicion of cover-up and now by the new administration” at the local United Way. “I feel strongly the best approach for United Way is to be completely honest and forthcoming, so it follows I would believe the journalist should not sit on the story. When it finally comes out and it surely will, the speed with which the United Way acted will be a question and the journalist who knew will be subject to the same inquiry.”

At an AdviceLine team discussion later, Ozar defended his position. “I work very hard not to give advice, but facilitate thought,” he said. “Right now, I agree with his reasoning. This man (the publisher) was a thoughtful, careful person who was aware of all of the issues being raised. He believed he had serious obligations to the United Way as a member of the board. The only way out was to not be on the board.”

Ozar added that he called the publisher to tell him that other members of the AdviceLine team disagreed with his advice “and presented the concern that he was neglecting certain duties that he has as a journalist. And we hashed through the case again and couldn’t come up with a better decision.”

Case Three

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine gets many calls about romantic entanglements. Here’s one that was especially interesting, with more details than most.

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the reporter covers. The editor also learned that she sent the mayor at least two stories about his town prior to publication.

A further complication was the discovery that a competing newspaper learned of the affair between the reporter and the mayor and might run a story about it. The managing editor called AdviceLine for guidance.

The AdviceLine advisor, Hugh Edmund Miller, until recently assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, pointed out that the rerporter violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: To act independently and to avoid conflicts of interest. She tried to hide her relationship with the mayor and was leaking information to him.

And if the competing newspaper reported the affair, that could seriously damage the paper’s credibility and reputation.

Miller told the managing editor: “I think you should do something decisive and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum, or fire her.”

Either say, said Miller, consider disclosing the matter to the public before the competition does. The editor said that confirmed his instincts.

Calling a Caller

Usually, we at AdviceLine don’t know the outcome of our cases, or if callers take our advice. But occasionally I track down the callers to ask them how the case turned out. I found the former managing editor. He left the newspaper after 22 years and was working for state government.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the former managing editor. He took the case to the company’s human resources department, recommending that the reporter be fired. The HR department was not interested in that. It ruled that the reporter was entitled to have sex with whomever she chose. It was a personal matter.

But she was terminated for sending stories to the mayor before she showed them to her editor. Those stories were considered company property.

This case reminds us that the world is a crazy and unpredictable place. Journalists have codes of ethics and it’s usually a good idea to abide by them. Journalists should protect their integrity and the integrity of the media companies they work for.

Corporate HR departments are guided by different standards.

Case Four

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve. Nobody had been injured by the fires.

The activists called a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain their reasons for burning the houses. Other media contacted by the activists told police, who were unable to identify the activists or prevent them from burning more houses.

The newspaper published a headline containing a coded message agreeing to meet with the activists. A reporter interviewed the activists in a city park and the newspaper published a story about the arsonists and their motives.

Only later were ethics questions raised about the way the newspaper handled the story. A Phoenix reporter called AdviceLine, asking how his own newspaper should cover the issue.

Should the newspaper have simply told police about the activists’ invitation, as other media groups did? Should it have informed police of an interview meeting where they could arrest the activists? Should the newspaper publish the story so the activists could make their case to the public, giving the public a much clearer and less frightening picture of the group’s aims and intentions? Should the newspaper have published personal information about the activists that might have helped police, putting the activists at greater risk of arrest?

Processing the Issues

“During a lengthy and thoughtful conversation, the caller and I processed the issues,” Ozar writes in his report on this case. “He had already thought through them very carefully, so my role, at his request, was chiefly to play ‘devil’s advocate’ to make sure every side of the issues involved had been explored. In fact, he had already examined the issues quite carefully. I agreed with him that, if the police were not being effective (the newspaper) might well have judged reasonably at the time that interviewing the contact would do the public more good than harm. And it also turned out that way, making the judgment of their actions after the fact even clearer. The caller’s view was that such promises of confidentiality are sometimes essential to news gathering and that this was properly judged to be one of those times. I raised questions about it, but nothing that weakened the caller’s judgment on the matter.”

Those are just four of the more than 1,000 ethics queries handled by AdviceLine since its inception in 2001. Nearly half of the cases involve conflict of interest.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Ethics Quiz

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A pandemic makes journalism ethics more important.

The truth is more important than ever as rumors and false information swirl.

That’s where making ethical decisions comes into play. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists. Call 866-DILEMMA or go to ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. It’s a free service, staffed by four university professors who teach ethics.

AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what they should do. Instead, these trained advisors 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 with 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.

What sorts of issues come to AdviceLine? Nearly half of the ethical questions presented to AdviceLine concern conflicts of interest. The SPJ code of ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when you are in the middle of a complicated situation, what is more compromising of journalistic independence and what is not.

So here’s a test, an ethics quiz, based on cases that came to AdviceLine. Journalists sheltering in place during the pandemic might welcome a chance to take an ethics break. You be the judge. What advice would you have given in these cases? On what would your advice be based? Put yourself in our shoes.

Case one: The news editor of a major metropolitan daily says the newspaper published a story about a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. Her name ranks at the top of a Google hit list, and she wants her name removed from the story because it’s difficult to find a job.

Meanwhile, a California editor is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s website archives, or block them from Google’s search engine. The requests include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about papers keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor these requests?

Case two: The publisher of a countywide newspaper is a member of a local United Way board of directors. In an emergency meeting, the new United Way executive director revealed that the previous executive director failed to file the federal IRS forms for not-for-profits, resulting in a $20,000 fine, which could climb higher if the organization’s new executive director fails to file the forms within six weeks.

The publisher wanted to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation was fixed. The national United Way fund drive was under way at the time, and the local group feared donors would be less generous if they learned of the tax problems before it was fixed.

AdviceLine regularly gets calls asking if it is a conflict of interest for editors or publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine got a call from a California editor who said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor.

A Massachusetts reporter asked how soon she should tell her editor about a growing relationship with an attorney she met while covering court cases. And a Washington, D.C. editor proposed a rule forbidding his staff from dating any person who is a news source, or might become a news source. A reporter complained that would mean reporters could not date anyone, since anyone might become news. Is a rule against dating news sources going too far in the cause of ethics, or is it simply recognition that journalism requires higher standards? Or should journalists have a chance at romance like everyone else?

AdviceLine has gotten a number of calls on romance issues. It’s a hot topic. So in the interest of professional ethics, I’ll let the cat out of the bag on this one. AdviceLine advisors have answered this problem by saying journalists who are romantically involved with news sources could not be trusted to be impartial and neutral toward those news sources. Their partiality might harm the credibility of the newspaper or broadcasting company they work for. In one of the cases, an AdviceLine advisor said journalists should be forbidden to date sources, or if that is not possible, they should be removed from covering that source.

Do you agree? What’s your take on this one?

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve.

The activists sent a letter to a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain the reasons for burning the houses. The editors pondered whether to give the letter to police, inform the police of the interview so the activists could be arrested, go ahead with an interview as requested and publish the story that explains the activists’ motives or do the interviews and publish all personal information gained from the activists and let police take it from there?

That’s a sample of what AdviceLine handles. It’s interesting work. Never dull.

Our mission is not only to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, but to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism – and to be an influential force in that effort.

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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.