Balancing community involvement with journalistic detachment is a continuing challenge for many journalists.
If you become too involved with community affairs, you can’t write about them credibly. And if you are too detached from the community, you are less likely to know what’s going on and to understand context. The balance can be especially challenging in small towns, where the pressure to become involved and the visibility of involvement may be greater. I wrote about this challenge last month, responding to a question that a friend had passed along to me.
At the time, I invited some colleagues who have taught and written about journalism ethics to respond to the same question. Newspaper consultant Jim Pumarlo, former editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle in Minnesota, responded. Jim is the author of Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper and Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Campaign Coverage. Here is Jim’s response, followed by some further thoughts of mine:
Avoiding ethical conflicts requires constant oversight, and potential conflicts can especially be a minefield in community newspapers
I certainly had my share when it came to news decisions. A reporter’s spouse was director of special education for the local school district. A reporter was asked to serve on the city’s Charter Commission. A former publisher of a sister newspaper in our circulation area sought a seat in the state legislature. And, the most challenging, navigating coverage of the numerous civic organizations and task forces that our staff, including myself, were involved in – some boards that were high profile in our community and warranted regular news coverage.
The best strategy, as you recommend: Be square with the public. That requires a twofold approach. No. 1, convene an internal discussion – seeking voices from all departments within the newspaper – to explore the best course of action. No. 2, communicate regularly with readers when these potential conflicts arise.
In that regard, I wrote a weekly column at the Red Wing Republican Eagle that sought to explain newspaper ethics and operations. It was my way to respond to questions and keep readers abreast of our operations. By no means did it guarantee that readers would agree with all of our decisions, but that they had a deeper understanding of how we arrived at our decisions.
Here are links to some sample columns:
- Keeping ear to ground is not conflict of interest
- Reader complains to News Council
- A guide to fairness: A+B+C+D+E=F
- Critiquing the article as editor, parishioner
- Reporting sensitive issues with consistency, fairness
The best formula for dealing with ethical challenges – for that matter, all “sensitive” news issues – is consistency and fairness. Most important, in the broader arena of covering sensitive issues, newsrooms must have a plan.
- Define the issue.
- Identify the values. For example, what has precedence – getting the story, or respecting an individual’s privacy?
- Consult relevant standards. Are there ethical principles that offer guidance in the decision-making?
- Assess your loyalties. To whom or what does the newspaper owe its major loyalties in pursing a story? Is it a business decision? Is the story satisfying the needs of readers, or of a news source?
Deciding whether to publish a story – and establishing or following a set of guidelines – are just two necessary steps when addressing sensitive and ethical issues. The final step is explaining a newspaper’s decisions to readers. My column frequently served that role – outlining the hows and whys of our approach to a story.
Editors and reporters must remember that newspapers can go to great lengths to develop all sorts of policies, and they still will be caught flat-footed on occasion. News occurs 24/7. Deadlines and other circumstances – especially with the ease and immediacy of posting news on the Web – do not always allow newsrooms to refer to their ABCs of thinking through all ethically challenging issues, and then proceed in an orderly fashion. Even the most comprehensive written policies are certain to miss some circumstances.
When it’s all said and done, another element – discussion – is common to the three steps in addressing ethically challenging issues: Develop the policy, implement the policy, and lastly explain the policy to readers. All decisions are stronger if the options are talked about with as many individuals as possible – people within and outside of the newsroom. Discussions do not mean consensus will be developed, but it assures that editors will receive many perspectives before making a final call.
Thanks to Jim for sharing his candid views on this important issue of journalism ethics.
I don’t agree with everything Jim wrote in his columns. For instance, I would never serve, or allow a member of a news staff that I led to serve, as president of the Chamber of Commerce, as Jim did in Red Wing. In the first column above, Jim describes a much deeper involvement in the community than I think is wise for an editor. The fact that it creates an appearance of conflict is evident from the fact that Jim wrote the column in response to a letter to the editor. Jim wrote that he thought it was more important for an editor to keep his ear to the ground in the community.
I think you can keep your ear to the ground without becoming that entangled with the institutions of the community. An editor who is leading community institutions may want to keep organizational secrets that the community has an interest in learning and should count on news organizations to try to learn and tell. If the organizaton is not serving the community well, some people will not have confidence in the news organization to report that. If the organization is serving the community well, some people will be skeptical of the flattering coverage the news organization provides.
One of the core values of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and of the Poynter Institute’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist is “act independently.” Some journalists take that value to an extreme where they are perceived as (or actually become) aloof and uncaring about the community. These journalists run the risk of being unable to learn of events, issues and trends in the community.
In another area, I would express things differently than Jim did, though we might not actually disagree. In one of his points above, Jim wrote: “Identify the values. For example, what has precedence – getting the story, or respecting an individual’s privacy?” I don’t see this as a matter of one value having more inherent weight than the other. We always want to get the story and we always want to respect privacy. We can’t always do both. In the cases where those come into conflict, we weigh the factors of each particular case and examine alternatives. Sometimes we will decide the story serves a valid public interest and identification is an important part of the story, so we publish a story, understanding that it may unfortunately damage someone’s privacy. In other cases, we will decide we can tell an important story without identifying a key person, such as a child or a victim of sexual assault. And sometimes we decide the public interest in a story is not strong enough and we don’t publish.
In most cases, journalism ethics is not a field of absolute black-and-white where one position is the ethical one and all others are unethical. As Jim has described, you weigh values and make decisions and you are honest with the public about those decisions.
And you need to be honest with yourself, your staff and the public that these are not easy decisions.