Posted by: vanhoff | May 3, 2009

News Orginizations and Ethics/ Contests

News organizations for some time have used their checkbooks to show community involvement, yet many feel that this should be limited to the editorial pages. Some news organizations own pieces of downtown hotels, some help restore historical sites. Others revitalize areas near the newspaper offices or finance convention centers. It is all part of being good corporate citizens, and when the Tennessean began a contest to win $500 for an essay, one could vie that the Tennessean is vesting its community interests by giveaways within the Nashville area.

            However, no matter how big or small the involvement is within the papers community any guideline to protect the reporter who is covering the company just underscores the fact that this story is treated differently. Reporters cannot report on their bosses’ financial dealings without a stake any more than they could report dispassionately on their family’s financial dealings. There is a conflict and it is enhanced in companies where reporters hold shares of the stock. Now they, themselves, are the owners on whom they are reporting. Being open with the public about the company’s financial involvements does not change the fact that they ought not be there in the first place.

            Stories about in-house financial concerns often get special handling, which only compounds the problem. For example, accuracy is of huge concerns to newspapers. Everyone thinks that every story should be accurate, but publishers get especially nervous about company stories. If you cannot get it right about yourself, how can you get it correct about someone else, one may ask. The gloves go on with company stories long before they are edited. With other stories, reporters are expected to go with what they can find, however and whenever they can find it. However, with stories dealing with company financial involvement, reporters are put in the awkward situation of having too much access and information heard within the company is often off-limits. Reporters need to refrain from going with their special information if management is going to be open with the staff concerning in-house material.

            You cannot get around the problems of reporting on yourself. Publishers who believe they can are deluding themselves. The inherent conflict of interest is unfair to the reporters who must cover stories in which their companies are involved and to the community which gets the sanitized, company-approved version of events. For news organizations, being a good corporate citizen means you report on change. You do not create it.

            Thus, I will close stating the laws of journalism have had a tenuous and at times perverse relationship to ethics. The effect of negligence with the idea of law is to thwart the written expression of high aspirations and reward minimum standards of professional conduct. This is most certainly so in the case of ethics codes for journalists.

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