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Previous relationship with candidate causes credibility issue in the ethics advisor.

THE PROBLEM: An editorial page editor's wife strikes up a durable friendship with a neighbor that becomes especially intimate when the editor's wife develops cancer. The friend is a critical support to the editor's wife and her family as she successfully battles the disease. The neighbor's husband is a civic activist who runs for city council. The editorial page editor is not particularly close to the husband but has an appreciation for the role the candidate's wife has played in his own wife's recovery. The candidate is coming in for an endorsement interview. What does the editorial page editor do?

THE RESOLUTION: Ethics Committee members agree that, in this particular scenario, it's best for the editorial page editor to abstain from this race's endorsement process. The editorial page editor should explain his concerns to his colleagues, at least. Depending on the circumstances, the editorial page editor might also want to notify his neighbor and his opponent of his decision to withdraw. That way, the neighbor wont be expecting an endorsement, and the opponent won't fear he will be given short shrift.

The key is ensuring that both candidates feel they are being treated fairly. Early disclosure and abstaining in the process is a sign of credibility in the editor, the newspaper, and the process. So, if at some point, the relationship does become an issue in the campaign after the endorsement runs, an explanation of the ethical decision to abstain quickly punctures any allegations of favoritism.

If the friendship between the families is well-known enough in the community and might, on its own, fuel speculation about why the newspaper endorsed the editor's neighbor, the editorial page editor might consider a small disclaimer under the editorial: "Because of family connections with one of the candidates, editorial page editor Joe Smith abstained from this endorsement discussion:'

For our colleagues at smaller newspapers where the editorial page editor is the only writer, such issues as these can be particularly troublesome. Someone else might not be available to step in. Given no other choice, one committee member suggested the editorial page editor forced to write the editorial run a statement of disclosure: "Because of close, mutual friendships that he shares with council candidate Jones, the writer of this editorial might be perceived as having a conflict of interest. Staff shortages prevented the assignment of this editorial to a different writer. Every effort was made not to let personal relationships influence the opinions expressed."

GOT AN ETHICS QUANDARY? The NCEW Ethics Committee stands ready to brainstorm with you on what your options are. Inquiries sent to the committee char are forwarded to committee members for their thoughts and suggestions, which are shared with you. The process is confidential. Send inquiries to chair Kate Riley,, or call 206/464-2260.
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Publication:The Masthead
Date:Dec 22, 2004
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