May 21, 2004

Baby bibs usually conjure up images of tiny, smiling faces and mushy messes.  But at the Baltimore Sun, no one is smiling about the gift of a baby bib and the ethical mess it created involving a possible conflict of interest.

The Sun became aware of the potential conflict following an FOI request made by one of its reporters. It revealed the names of a staff writer, as well as editorial writer, on a gift list for the new baby of the governor of Maryland. Both staff members have been asked not to write about issues regarding the governor for a period of time.

The editors involved believe they need to protect the integrity of the news product. The staff writer believes the gift doesn’t undermine her credibility, according to published reports about the issue.

Conflicts of interest situations arise regularly for many journalists. The Sun episode represents only the latest in a string of incidents where conflicts of interests have been perceived. Another example includes the gay journalists in San Francisco who covered gay civil weddings there and decided to obtain a similar license themselves.  And in Des Moines, a TV anchor appeared in her husband’s campaign brochures for a city council seat he ran for and won.

How odd that journalists, who work in a profession that encourages people to freely express themselves, find themselves often unable to freely express themselves. It reflects how complicated conflicts of interest issues can become.

Rules can’t account for extenuating circumstances… And they encourage decisions, not critical thinking.

Journalists, after all, live and work in interaction with other people– not in some isolated, artificial bubble. Those who want to participate in the civic life of their communities raise legitimate questions. Are we not human? Are we not citizens? Do we not have the same rights as other citizens? Should we not accept the same obligations involved in community building and participating in the political process?  Are we not able to enjoy, and extend, the same courtesies that decent people extend to each other?

Some of us have knee-jerk reactions to such questions. Others among us grapple with the desire, or the request, to serve many masters. What seems obvious to some seems oblique to others.

That’s why some want rules. Here’s what you do. Here’s what you don’t do. But you can’t have a rule for everything. Rules can’t account for extenuating circumstances.  Rules offer answers that may not address questions. And they encourage decisions, not critical thinking.

Those of you familiar with Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist, developed by Bob Steele, as well as his ethical questions that you can ask, know the value we place on the ethical decision-making process.

It’s not that rules are bad. It’s that they are just one of the tools we can use in the process rather than the only one we use.

One of the challenges we face in providing ethical guidance involves how specific, or how vague, we should be. For example, what about accepting or giving gifts?

A rule would be specific. It might say journalists cannot accept or give gifts. What does that mean? No gifts for anyone, period. How far should the rule extend? Governors? Mayors? Principals? Neighbors? Parents? In-laws? Children? Cousins? Friends? Friends who are mayors, principals, governors?

Contrast that with one of the points in our guiding principles: “remain free from associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.” What does that mean? Should be we able to simply imply what we mean without saying it directly? We need to think that through and try to arrive at an option, or a number of alternatives, that best answer that guidance.

In effect, we need both specificity and flexibility. Bob Steele, who is Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values, stresses the importance of scale. How would we evaluate the scale of this conflict of interest? After our conversation, Bob offered this follow-up via e-mail:

“I believe news organizations should have enough written down when it comes to ethical standards and practices that everyone is on the same page on expectations. It’s a matter of fairness to employees. The absence of clarity on these standards and expectations is a recipe for confusion and, in some cases, distrust.”

Lou Hodges, who recently retired as the Knight Chair in Journalism for Ethics at Washington & Lee University, but continues teaching, sees conflicts of interest as virtually inevitable. Dealing with them is a moral issue, he said in a phone interview.

So his approach is to think of how to address them. He suggests three possibilities: Retreat, Recuse or Reveal:

1.  Retreat from, or avoid all, conflicts of interest all together;
2.  Recuse yourself when you can’t avoid them, and pass the story on to someone else;
3.  Reveal your conflicts when you can’t retreat, or recuse, yourself.

I can empathize with the tension this creates.

When a well-meaning neighbor knocks on my door at home and asks me if I would sign a petition, I wince.  When my wife tells me she wants to contribute to a politician’s campaign, I cringe. When she mentions the possibility of running for local office, I pray—that the moment will pass.

My reticence about making my position public occurs almost instinctively. As a journalist who worked for newspapers for more than 20 years, I felt it imperative that I keep my views on public issues private.

It’s not that I didn’t want to participate in civic affairs. But I feared doing so in a public, overt manner, might cause others to see potential conflict in any reporting or editing I might do in those areas.

Although I now work for an educational institute, which does not have the same news conflicts faced by daily news reporters and editors, I still carry with me the journalistic framework that makes me cautious.

So, I politely decline the opportunity to sign the petition. I encourage my wife to express her political views—as her views.  And I hope she runs—but for exercise.

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Aly Colón is the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Journalism Ethics at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia. Previously, Colón led…
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