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Take a look in the mirror.

Journalists who don't care about ethics in the abstract -- and we can presume there are some -- may nonetheless be motivated by considerations of career survival.

NCEW ethics committee chair J. R. Labbe of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram recalled some cautionary exan ples, such as the deal between the Los Angeles Times and the Staples Center in Los Angeles to share ad revenues from the special section promoting the center's opening.

But journalists who think about ethics primarily in personal terms should remember they have a larger responsibility as well. "We've made that case for our independence" said Joann Byrd, editorial page editor for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, "and now it's expected of us.

"The mistakes I make today reverberate to other papers."

And another panelist, publisher Larry Walker of the San Antonio Express-News, illustrated the point that ethical principles maybe consistent, but the matter of applying them depends on one's role.

The publisher has to balance resources for the newsroom, new media, and the business side, he said. "Informing the community and making a profit can be done together," while maintaining the necessary separation.

Byrd said that neither absolutist position -- putting profits ahead of credibility or passing them up because the news must be "pure" -- will serve the community.

She added, "A newspaper is worthless if people don't trust it, but also if it goes under."

Everyone has competing loyalties -- the newspaper, the community, the family, and others, Byrd said. It's no use to say confficts of interest should never happen.

"There's nothing to talk about until one of your loyalties threatens another," she said. "Ethical behavior is a process of thinking through options."

Practical tips: Don't have one individual or group making decisions. "Committees don't make good decisions," she said. "Two or three people do."

Second, find solutions that mitigate damage.

And third, "before you implement a solution, craft a story of how you came to that conclusion. It has to be credible, something that could go on the front page even though you may never publish it. You'll discover the holes in the story when you try to write it."

Labbe asked Walker about the traditional wall between the newsroom and the business side.

"What if publishers think editorial is not plugged in?" she asked. "Do we have to tear down the wall?"

That wall, Walker said, is more clearly defined on the edit side. But often, that's because the business side doesn't understand the newspaper. But to readers, everyone who works there represents the paper.

They try to hire people who actually read the paper, he said, and they use a consulting group that also works with Disney to train all new employees on how to present a positive impression of the paper.

"I've heard of papers where business people aren't allowed on edit floors," he said. "When I worked in San Francisco at the agency it was so debilitating to have no access to the newsroom."

In the question-and-answer part of the program, Frank Partsch of the Omaha World-Herald asked whether advertising policy should be consistent with editorial. He said he's had readers ask: "How can you be so hypocritical" by printing casino ads when you oppose the casinos? His answer is, "We offer them commercial speech, without judging."

But others reach different conclusions. "We have eliminated gun ads," Walker said, "to be consistent."

One audience member asked about participation in community organizations. "My publisher put me up for United Way," she said, and then that organization became news when the head resigned."

"You can't win," Byrd said. "The community needs leaders. But the credibility of the edit page is at risk."

It depends on the level, Walker said. He, as publisher, is chair of the United Way campaign, and also was chair of the symphony. He recused himself from related editorials.

Conflicts of interest over family roles arise frequently. Labbe said she's married to a police officer who was lead investigator in a high-profile murder case, and "it was hard to sit on that."

"Another husband," she said, "ran for City Council and didn't tell me. It was a small paper and we were effectively out of that race.

Walker's advice: Get right with your kids. They should know that if they get into trouble and they're caught, they'll be on page one.

The journalists who find themselves in such a situation have to hand off their duties to someone else, Byrd said. "But I'd go further, and explain in print what you're doing."

Even the best efforts may fall short, though as summarized in Byrd's Law: Everything you do will be misunderstood.

NCEW member Linda Seeback is an editorial writer for the Denver Rocky Mountain News.
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Author:SEEBACH, LINDA
Publication:The Masthead
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2000
Words:781
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