KOK Edit: Your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM)
KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) KOK Edit: your favorite copyeditor since 1984(SM) Katharine O'Moore Klopf

Thursday, October 27, 2005

The New McCarthyism, Take 6

I e-mailed the Society of Professional Journalists about about copy editor Tim Mahoney's suspension from the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The chairperson and one cochair of the SPJ's Ethics Committee responded.

From Gary Hill, Director of Investigations for KSTP-TV and SPJ Ethics Committee Chairperson:

I should first say that I don't have any independent information beyond that which you provided me, so I'm basing my opinions solely on that. Mr. Mahoney's situation touches on a large number of issues. Not only ethics are involved, but also employment law, union relations, free-lance agreements, and more. I don't have enough information or expertise to speak authoritatively on all of this, but let me offer up a few general opinions.

The SPJ Code of Ethics has a section that says "Act Independently." Under that heading you will find the following language:

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.

Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

When journalists participate in activities like anti-war demonstrations and political fundraisers they create real or perceived conflicts of interest for their employers. In recent years more news organizations have tried to come to grips with this by either banning these type of activities outright or asking their employees to seek permission in advance. The advance permission route allows an editor to have a discussion with the employee about the activity and the potential consequences. "If you participate in an anti-war march we won't be able to assign you to that topic." "If you volunteer for charity X we'll have to disclose that the next time you happen to write or edit on a story on charity X."

There are all sorts of unanswered questions in the case of Mr. Mahoney. Had this type of activity been previously banned by the newspaper? How was that ban communicated to the journalists? Is there a different standard for free-lance writers/editors who may need to work many different organizations some of which may become the topic of news stories? Does a union contract have any language addressing this? As you can see these questions lead us into the areas of employment law I referred to earlier.

In summary I would say that it is ethical for newsrooms to try to limit real or perceived conflicts of interest in their reporting or editing staff. Ethical journalists will try to steer clear of these potential conflicts even if means not exercising some of their rights as citizens. It is a necessary sacrifice to assure the public it is receiving truthful reporting.

From Fred Brown of the Denver Post, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairperson:

Gary Hill's response covered the issues here fairly and thoroughly. As a former political reporter and editor, I felt I had to adhere to even more stringent standards—i.e., no contributions to campaigns of any sort, including ballot issues; no circulating or even signing petitions; no yard signs or bumper stickers, etc.

I seriously considered resigning from the Newspaper Guild in 1972 because it endorsed George McGovern for president—although I voted for the guy. (Those journalists who carry their purity to the extreme of declining to vote are, I think, going too far.)

At the time, the Denver Post had no written policy specifically addressing all of the many ways political beliefs might be expressed. Its current code of ethics, which you can find online, is pretty strict on this subject. The point is, an employer in the business of trying to provide impartial, unbiased information has a right—some would say a duty—to impose certain rules on the people processing that information.

The New McCarthyism Take 2 Take 3 Take 4 Take 5 Take 6 Take 7

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