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Reigning on the Parade

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 isn’t 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 didn’t seek their permission to participate in the event. A subsidiary publication co-sponsored the parade, but Call editors say they didn’t know of Whelan’s 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 Wittman’s long-term relationship.

Question: What should those “consequences” be for Frank Whelan?

WHO: Consider the decision-maker and the parties affected by that person’s 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 newspaper’s reputation is hugely at stake. And of course its readers have a stake in this situation, too, but not nearly as great as the newspaper’s.

WHY: The first four principles of the “Act Independently” section of the SPJ code of ethics seem particularly applicable here. It’s 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 shouldn’t be an active advocate for a particular point of view about a subject he’s 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?

Isn’t it better to acknowledge — and disclose — one’s interests than to deny them? Avoiding membership or participation doesn’t 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, you’d 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 employer’s 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 Call’s 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

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