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Ethics Case Studies
Controversy over a Concert

WHAT: Three former members of the Eagles rock band came to Denver during the 2004 election campaign to raise money for a U.S. Senate candidate, Democrat Ken Salazar. John Temple, editor and publisher of the Rocky Mountain News, advised his reporters not to go to the fundraising concerts. In a memo to the staff, Temple said:

“Since our longstanding policy precludes all newsroom employees from making political donations, none of us will be able to attend these concerts, or any others that occur this political season. The obvious exceptions are reporters, columnists and photographers covering the concerts, both as entertainment events and political stories.”

Some reporters and editors interpreted the directive as implying that their bosses didn’t trust them. Some said the only issue should be whether their work is fair and accurate, not about what they do in their off time. At staff meetings requested by the Denver Newspaper Guild, reporters asked all manner of questions, Temple said: What if my spouse goes, or gives a donation? What if I never cover politics or have a byline in the paper? Why can’t we buy tickets to this concert when we can go to concerts by other artists who may then use the money for political donations?

Temple, writing about the situation in two different columns, said a newspaper’s first obligation is to its readers. It should avoid anything that might compromise — or appear to comprise — its impartiality and integrity.

Question: Is it fair to ask newspaper staffers — or employees at other news media, for that matter — not to attend events that may have a political purpose? Are the rules different for different jobs at the news outlet?

WHO: In this case, the decision was made by the top executive at the Rocky Mountain News. His decision clearly affected his employees, and it was intended to look out for the interests of the newspaper’s readers. In Temple’s eyes, the public had a major stake in this decision. Also affected, but perhaps not so much, were the entertainers, the Democratic (and Republican) parties and candidate Ken Salazar.

WHY: One of a journalist’s biggest challenges is how to put aside personal preferences and prejudices in order to deliver impartial, fair information. Elections raise ethical questions for reporters, and the answer to those ethical questions is usually inflexible: Avoid any display of partisanship, including donating money to candidates, even indirectly. Some media companies discourage employees from participating in partisan politics in any way; some individuals have gone so far as to declare publicly that they do not vote, to avoid even the slightest appearance of bias. That may be going too far, but journalists do give up some of their constitutional rights if they want to practice their profession ethically. Ironically, this is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants the right to any citizen to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they’d like to see elected.

HOW: Temple’s decision wasn’t well-received by many in his staff. Reporters are well aware that some newspaper owners and publishers contribute to political campaigns. Editorial pages endorse candidates. Some members of the public, too, argued that Temple was too concerned with appearances. “I suspect that if and when you and your management put as much thought and effort into changing the reality of political bias on your staff as you do worrying about the image which your staff projects, you won’t have to be concerned about either the reality or the image,” one reader wrote.

What do you think are appropriate limits — if any — on a journalist’s political involvement? Does it differ from job to job? What sort of a policy would you set for your staff if you were managing a media outlet — or yourself, if you were a Weblog with a staff of one?

— by Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee

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