WHAT: Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, took part in a gay rights parade in June 2006 and stirred up a classic ethical dilemma. The situation raises any number of questions about what is and isnt a conflict of interest. Whelan, 56, and his partner of 25 years, Bob Wittman, were the co-grand marshals of a gay pride parade. His newspaper prohibits employees from taking part in public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause. His editors say Whelan didnt seek their permission to participate in the event. A subsidiary publication co-sponsored the parade, but Call editors say they didnt know of Whelans involvement until they saw a press release. Two days before the parade, they warned him that his role would be a conflict, a breach of the code, and that there would be consequences if he participated. Whelan said their roles as grand marshals were a celebration of his and Wittmans long-term relationship.
Question: What should those consequences be for Frank Whelan?
WHO: Consider the decision-maker and the parties affected by that persons decision. Put yourself in the position of the editor who must decide how or whether to punish Whelan. As for those affected, the major stakeholder obviously is Whelan. Others include his partner, the parade organizers, proponents and opponents of gay rights. The newspapers reputation is hugely at stake. And of course its readers have a stake in this situation, too, but not nearly as great as the newspapers.
WHY: The first four principles of the Act Independently section of the SPJ code of ethics seem particularly applicable here. Its unprofessional, and unethical, to engage in activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility. But there are other questions that should be asked. Is gay pride a political cause? Was the parade a demonstration or merely a celebration, intended to advocate or merely to entertain? The newspaper notes that a Web site promoting the parade said naming Whelan and his partner grand marshals supports the need for Marriage Equality.
A reporter shouldnt be an active advocate for a particular point of view about a subject hes covering. But how far does that go? If a political reporter can cheer for the hometown team, should a sports reporter be able to back a political candidate? How many rights must journalists give up when they accept the idea that they should be detached observers? Would we feel differently about this if it had been an anti-abortion parade? What about an Italian-American reporter marching in a Columbus Day parade?
Isnt it better to acknowledge and disclose ones interests than to deny them? Avoiding membership or participation doesnt guarantee objectivity. Some reporters who make a great show in the newsroom of avoiding any ties to anything can be among the most biased in their reporting.
HOW: In this case, youd want to be fair to a long-time employee minimizing harm, in other words. Is a suspension in order? Paid or unpaid? A change in assignment, perhaps? Or would that be too harsh? The important thing is to ask the right questions (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), to satisfy yourself that your solution is the best outcome and to be able to explain it. Put it in writing, to be sure it makes sense.
Whelan, upset by his employers reaction, took two days off after which the paper told him it would consider that an unpaid suspension. I basically walked out the door, he said in January 2009, even though he was asked to return after the two days.
Whelan filed three lawsuits: sexual discrimination in violation of a city ordinance, age discrimination and defamation. All three claims were settled out of court, he said. The Morning Calls owners, the Tribune Co., agreed to pay two years of severance to Whelan and two years of medical benefits for him and his partner, he said.
Morning Call editor Ardith Hilliard, who was editor during the controversy, could not be reached for comment.
by Fred Brown and Nerissa Young, SPJ Ethics Committee