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A question of ethics: be prepared to criticize friends in high places.

Friends enrich our lives in countless ways. But friends can unwittingly lead editorial writers into ethical pitfalls if we aren't careful.

An editorial page editor with a major Midwestern daily watched with trepidation as a childhood friend contemplated a run for mayor. The editor thought long and hard about what to do if the friend became a candidate. Commenting on this friend's actions, whether praise or criticism, would be uncomfortable.

"Frankly, friends are a problem," he said. "If you give them a pass, it looks like you are giving them a pass; if you nuke them, it opens you to the criticism that you pulled punches, or that you overdid it to prove that you are dean, and it sometimes costs a good friendship."

Another editorial writer in a capital city became friends with an attorney who was a partner with a prominent law firm. After the attorney helped a gubernatorial candidate win an election, he became the governor's counsel. The editorial writer was commenting on legislation he was pretty sure his friend had crafted and policies his friend had to officially defend.

Becoming a hermit is not the answer, though it may be tempting. Editorial writers are human beings. We have family. Our children play with other people's children. We attend ballgames and churches. We will make friends. And, since editorial writers are often intensely interested in public policy, it isn't surprising that some of our friends will come from the political world.

Two things are important here, from an ethical standpoint. An editorial writer should never violate the confidence of a friend, or any other source. But, as the NCEW Statement of Principles advises, pledges of confidence "should he made only to serve the public's need for information."

As tempting as it is to want to get the real dirt from a friend, take care that you don't make inappropriate use of your friendship to get it.

Secondly, if you end up with friends in high places, you must be prepared to criticize them. And your friends should be prepared for that possibility as well. Those in other professions may not need to sit down with their friends and discuss ground rules. Those in our profession with friends in important positions would be irresponsible not to.

The NCEW Ethics Committee exists to help members sort through and resolve ethical dilemmas by providing a confidential sounding board. With this column, the committee hopes to spur further discussion of ethics in our profession by presenting real-world situations (in vague-enough terms to protect the confidentiality of those involved). If you have a situation you would like the Ethics Committee to consider, please e-mail Issues will be presented in this column only with the express permission of the member.
COPYRIGHT 2004 National Conference of Editorial Writers
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2004, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Publication:The Masthead
Date:Mar 22, 2004
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