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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox - May/June 2010


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Monday, May 31, 2010
Ethics Toolbox - May/June 2010

Weeding out those devilish connections

By Andy Schotz

I love connections. A friend and I regularly trade “Six Degrees” stories about who we just met and how they fit into some other facet of our lives, through channels we wouldn’t have predicted.

Professionally, though, I’m leery of having ties to people, places or events in my community. I purposely don’t join local clubs or organizations because of the possibility of covering them later or even the perception that my involvement somehow will influence what my newspaper does.

Small-town journalism doesn’t always allow a clean divide between work and the rest of life. The editor’s cousin sits on the planning board. The sports reporter was a classmate of the football coach. The newspaper prints brochures for the county fair.

The best we can do is strive for a balance between person and journalist.

The SPJ Code of Ethics encourages journalists to “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”“Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility” and “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

For the times we’re unavoidably entangled in some aspect of the news, and stepping aside isn’t possible, we turn to one of the best remedies available: disclosure.

My newspaper lets readers know in stories about the local cable TV provider that we both have the same parent company.

I respect Jack Shafer every time I get to the end of his Slate column and read: “Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.”

Recently, a friend and fellow journo, Tom LoBianco, posted an item on his blog about the Maryland political landscape and media coverage of it.

I especially liked that after mentioning a metro daily in our area, Tom told his blog followers he recently sent a résumé to that newspaper.

Tom wondered, when is disclosure enough to keep going and when does a reporter need to step back?

As I wrote in a guest post for his blog, there are no set answers to that question. Family relationships, friendships, financial interests and memberships are where many conflicts of interest lie, but there are other minefields.

Imagine, as a reader, viewer or listener, how much you’d like to know about a journalist’s connection to an issue she’s covering. A connection isn’t necessarily fatal to the credibility of her account, but the public should know about the connection and can decide how important it is.

The SPJ Ethics Committee recently criticized The Asbury Park Press and other Gannett newspapers in New Jersey for handing off some of their New Jersey Devils hockey coverage to a team employee. Read the statement at tinyurl.com/SPJsportscoverage.

The newspapers printed the employee’s stories under the heading of “Special to the (newspaper name).” The “Special to ...” label is commonly attached to stories by freelancers or stringers, to distinguish them from staff writers.

Only when The New York Times exposed the connection in a story about the arrangement did the Gannett papers add a tag line saying the employee/writer “works for the New Jersey Devils and writes for newjerseydevils.com.”

Having an entity cover itself is bad enough; disclosure helps but isn’t a cure.

But failing to tell readers — either through negligence or deception — is an ethical failure.

The New York Times quoted Asbury Park Press Editor Hollis Towns, defending the coverage arrangement with the Devils, saying: “I think journalists get hung up on certain lines of what’s ethical more than readers.”

If that’s true for readers in Asbury Park, maybe it’s because they have learned not to expect much from their local paper.

I strongly disagree with Towns. The SPJ Ethics Committee hears from many readers, viewers and listeners concerned that journalism standards are eroding and demanding to know: What are we going to about it?!

Of course, there are no “rules” in journalism that force news organizations to be ethical. The public should challenge questionable practices. Responsible journalists will take those challenges seriously.

Disclosure and transparency — letting the public know relevant information about the process of collecting and disseminating the news — are important ways to earn and keep trust.

That trust is the connection we need the most.

Andy Schotz, SPJ’s Ethics Committee chairman, is a reporter for The Herald-Mail, a daily newspaper in Hagerstown, Md. He has covered a variety of beats, including city hall and police and courts. Schotz is on the board of SPJ’s Washington, D.C., Pro chapter. A Long Island native, he has a bachelor’s degree from the University at Albany in upstate New York. He previously worked for eight years at The Altamont Enterprise, a weekly paper outside Albany, as a reporter and, for part of that time, an editor.

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