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A question of ethics: columnist invents colleague.

THE SITUATION: A high-school history teacher working as a freelance columnist at a small newspaper invents an imaginary colleague to debate in a column.

The editor, and presumably many of the readers, does not realize the colleague was a fiction used as a literary device such as Mike Royko's Slats Grobnik. When the professor writes a second column using the character, the editor asks who the person is, and the columnist explains.

The editor feels this is a betrayal of his and the readers' trust. He wonders how to explain the situation to his readers and whether to suspend or fire the columnist.

RESOLUTION: Royko, of course, was a master. Some readers may nat have realized that Slats was a creation, but most understood that Royko used the character as a tool to conduct what one Ethics Committee member referred to as a "lowbrow Socratic dialogue:' William Raspberry makes successful use occasionally of a similar tool, using a mythical Washington cabby as a foil.

In the case at hand, though, the author's intent was not so clear, and the editor's misgivings were legitimate. Reader trust is important--more than ever in a post-Jayson Blair age. As the editor noted, newspaper readers should be able to assume that they are reading nonfiction.

The editor's first instinct, to explain the situation to readers through an editor's note, was correct. Most of the Ethics Committee, however, felt that suspending or firing the columnist would be an overreaction, especially since the columnist is not a trained journalist. Instead, the editor should explain to him basic tenets of journalism, as well as the importance of maintaining credibility with readers by never intentionally deceiving them.

The editor did this, not only with the columnist in question, but with his other freelance columnists.

NOTE: If the newspaper had maintained a policy requiring that the editor know the identity of any unnamed source, this situation never would have occurred.
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Publication:The Masthead
Date:Sep 22, 2003
Previous Article:New members of NCEW: January-June 2003.
Next Article:Pederson writes a gift of faith.

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