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A question of ethics: civic involvement makes for conflicts.

SITUATION: A small town newspaper editorial writer is promoted to editorial page editor and finds she's inherited a number of obligations her predecessor had assumed.

Among them is membership on a major fundraising charity's board of directors, representing the newspaper. The publisher insists she stay on the charitable board, saying the newspaper must maintain its leadership role and all the other senior managers are up to their ears in their own community boards.

After all, the publisher argues, the assignment had not been problematic during the previous editor's multiyear tenure.

But within months, the charity board's financial committee makes controversial recommendations to change its financial policies, and the CEO resigns. Important changes for the organization and community.

The editorial board considers commenting, but the new editorial page editor does not feel she can contribute to the discussion because of knowledge she has gleaned from the charity's board meetings. She goes to charity meetings but feels constrained from participating fully because of her professional role. In other words, she's not much good to either board.

COMMENTS: At larger newspapers in large cities where there is a deep bench in the newspaper's management and in the community to fill such leadership positions, such a scenario is unlikely. But it is not too far-fetched in smaller communities where the newspaper and its managers often are pressured to fill real leadership voids.

Another editorial writer commented for the editorial board, but the publisher vetoed the editor's request for disclosure of her role on the charity board and that she did not contribute to the editorial discussion.

Ultimately, the solution for this editorial page editor was a new publisher, who understood the awkwardness of the circumstance and permitted the editor to resign the high-profile charity board position.

This circumstance points out the importance of having clearly defined newspaper policies dealing specifically with editorial writers and editorial page editors, who have much to offer their communities but not at the expense of their allegiance to readers.

Some newspapers have no formal policy but have a rule of thumb that, if you want to write about the topic, don't join the community board. But this can pose public perception problems for the editorial board if, as in the above case, the charity becomes embroiled in a controversy.

Some newspapers permit editorial writers to participate on advisory-type boards where they can advise the actual decision-makers but are not themselves involved in making any financial or executive decisions. Many don't permit their editorial writers, or any of their newspaper managers for that matter, to participate on any public relations committee. One editorial writer would refuse to hand-deliver press releases as a favor, instead providing a stamped envelope with the newspaper's address.

One editorial page editor permits his staff to serve on low-profile boards as long as they make it clear to the board that they work for a newspaper and any conflicts would be resolved in favor of their obligation to the newspaper.

The same editor notes that he avoids any boards that are specifically seeking a representative of the newspaper, such as United Way or the opera board, or any that receive taxpayer money.

Got an ethics question? E-mail the NCEW Ethics Committee for some quick and thoughtful responses. Inquiries are kept confidential. Questions are posed to the ethics committee, often without the name of the inquirer, and committee members' responses are then shared with the person who made the inquiry. Direct questions to Ethics Chair Kate Riley at
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Publication:The Masthead
Date:Jun 22, 2004
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