Conflicts of interest? Be square with readers

by | Jul 1, 2009 | Recent Writing | 0 comments

Publishers’ Auxiliary/July 2009

Avoiding ethical conflicts requires constant oversight in newsrooms. Navigating mine fields can be a full-time job for small-town journalists.

The list is endless. A reporter’s spouse is an administrator in the local school district. A former publisher of a sister newspaper in your circulation area seeks a seat in the state legislature. A reporter is asked to serve on a commission to review the city’s charter.

And, among the most challenging of circumstances, newsrooms must guide coverage of the numerous civic organizations and task forces on which newspaper personnel serve. Editors and publishers may well be at the top of that list.

The purists draw a clear line of separation between reporting the news and being part of the news. At the other end of the spectrum, some publishers and editors will argue that their personal involvement fills an important void in community leadership. Newspapers indeed can wield influence through aggressive editorial pages and news coverage, but that often is not a substitute for direct participation by the individuals themselves.

It’s impractical to think that publishers and editors will arrive at an industry standard that fits all situations.

It is reasonable, however, to expect newsrooms to adopt a simple and straightforward strategy when it comes to revealing potential conflicts of interest: Be square with readers.

The best formula for dealing with ethical challenges – for that matter, the standard for reporting all “sensitive” issues – is consistency and fairness. Newsrooms must have a plan that includes three steps: Define the policy, implement the policy, and then explain the policy.

Most newsrooms likely draw the line on what represents one of the most challenging ethical dilemmas: individuals seeking elective office. But that stance is by no means universally accepted within the industry. The pitfalls for coverage are inherent even when editors and publishers take specific steps to separate themselves from news coverage of the respective bodies. And, sad to say, some newspapers seek no separation whatsoever, which raises legitimate questions of newspaper ethics and credibility.

So how far does the ban on involvement by newspaper personnel extend? For those who want to remain pure on the practice, one can arguably apply that separation to all departments, especially management-level individuals. The reality in most communities is that if a newspaper declared all potential conflicts of interest, editors probably would constantly be adding footnotes to news stories and editorials.

Small-town journalism always will pose ethical challenges. That underscores the importance of editors and publishers convening the discussion regularly both within your entire newspaper operations and with your readers. These discussions do not mean consensus will be developed, but it assures that editors will receive many perspectives before making a final call.

Then take deliberate efforts to communicate policies. The approach should not be to convince readers that a certain policy was the “right” way or the “only” way to handle a circumstance. Rather, use the column as a conversation to help everyone better understand the decision-making process. Regular communication will pay dividends in building and fostering relationships with readers.