The developing story about a conservative blogger in South Carolina who has alleged that he had an “inappropriate physical relationship” with a Republican gubernatorial candidate illustrates some tough ethical issues that journalists everywhere can learn from. This mixes ingredients of media competition, sex, politics and an unconfirmed allegation by a blogger.
The ethical questions are largely:
- How should journalists handle a blogger’s unsubstantiated accusations against a political candidate?
- What do voters need to know and when do they need to know it, especially when issues of trust and infidelity have unsettled state government?
- How does the timing of the election — the Republican primary is just two weeks away — affect how news organizations handle this story?
The blogger and the candidate
Remember that South Carolina was rocked by a governor who left the country to have an affair, lost his wife and generally created a mess of things.
The errant governor’s former press secretary, Will Folks, blogged Monday that he had an affair with state Rep. Nikki Haley, who is now the leading Republican candidate for governor. “Several years ago,” he wrote, “prior to my marriage, I had an inappropriate physical relationship with Nikki.”
Folks says he disclosed this now because he didn’t want to be outed by an alt weekly, which has confirmed that it has been investigating an alleged affair for some weeks and had contacted Folks for comment.
Haley has denied Folks’ allegation.
Deciding what to report and when
Now that Haley has responded so publicly, it seems to me that the story is too public to ignore. For media in South Carolina, the decision to publish is more clear-cut now that others, including the candidate herself and her high-profile supporter Sarah Palin, have responded.
But let’s take this case and learn from it.
In a superheated election year, some news outlet somewhere will hear a similar, last-minute allegation of sexual impropriety. So it’s worthwhile to practice asking the kinds of questions you’ll need to make coverage decisions on deadline.
I would ask a series of questions to flesh out some of the issues:
- How much evidence do you need to report an allegation like this? Is his accusation enough? Should you insist on phone records, e-mails or other proof?
- How credible has the accuser been in the past?
- How is the pressure to report the story different because a political insider posted this on his blog rather than speaking to a reporter or sending an e-mail?
- What political motivation might the accuser have in harming the politician’s candidacy?
- What is the journalistic purpose of reporting such accusations? Why, even if it were true, is this news that the public needs to know?
- How would you explain why you didn’t report on such an accusation? What if your governor had been involved in a scandal like Gov. Mark Sanford has been?
- Will the time and resources you spend on this story detract from covering more important election issues?
Tone and degree of treatment
- How you play a story sends a signal about how important you think it is and how credible you consider the accusation. What is the tone of your headline? Where does the story play? How much space or airtime do you give it?
- If you report the story, should you link to the blog on which the allegation was made? This is part of a larger issue about when your news organization links to external sources: Does your news organization view those links as endorsements or attribution?
- Would you open this story up to public comment online or on air? How would you screen or moderate what people say?
- How would your coverage decisions be different if the election were a week away, a day away, six months away? The more time the candidate has before an election to respond to allegations, the more time they have to recover — or crumble.
- Beyond the political damage of the allegation, who else could be harmed, including family members? Does the public good outweigh that harm?
I would love for you to post your thoughtful comments and guideline suggestions.