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DEAR READER: I'm still conflicted over the ethics policy

Saturday, April 24, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CDT; updated 10:15 a.m. CDT, Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Dear Reader,

Dave the hot dog guy interrupted a spirited discussion in my doorway of the newspaper’s conflicts-of-interest policy.

He stepped around a sports editor and a reporter and into my office.  He carried a smile and two white paper bags.  

The bags begged for the attention of my nose. The smell of something tasty. My nose demanded attention by my stomach.

I see Dave from time to time on the downtown streets with his cart. He served up dogs and sausages at a Missourian centennial event.

Mighty good.

Dave didn’t know about the debate fluttering through the newsroom this week. So far as I know, he didn’t read the proposed policy that ran in this space a week ago. He hadn’t engaged in long and difficult ethical discussions or wrote comments to me.

Dave just wanted to give me those bags along with an advertisement for a local eatery on Broadway.

Should I take them?

It's the kind of ethical question journalists face every day. 

Thanks to everyone who responded to my plea for feedback on the proposed conflicts-of-interest policy for the Missourian.

As a result, here’s one thing you won’t see:

“At the beginning of each semester, students will meet with their editors to look at their Facebook (or other social media) profiles.”

Several comments took issue with the sentence. Some students said it had a high “creepiness factor.”

So that sentence will go into the trash bin.

The rest? Well…

There wasn’t much consensus from this week’s meeting of senior editors.

Some fault lines:

  • Journalists should be more transparent about their work. But how far should they go in disclosing their personal beliefs? Does it matter whether I’m Christian or Muslim or atheist? Or how I voted in the last election?
  • Social media like Facebook is social. They reflect personality. Should there be a public, more professional face as well as a private one that you share only with your friends? I mean your real friends, not just people you “friend.” (Must we make a fine, serviceable noun into a verb?)

The conversation moved from the specific to the philosophical — from attending concerts of musicians raising funds for causes to whether we should throw the whole policy in the trash.

They will convene again on Wednesday.

The whole thing makes my head hurt.

Some personal reflections:

I agree journalists, like all other people, are biased, in ways that defy simple labels like conservative or liberal.

But I believe journalists “should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know,” as the Society of Professional Journalists says in its code of ethics.

I agree that objectivity, as a principle, is a myth. The profession is fooling no one – except, perhaps, its practitioners.

Journalists don’t live in a sterile bubble. And wouldn’t it make for boring stories if they did?

But I believe in objectivity as a method to get the facts right. It's common sense, really. As a journalist, I need to check out as many versions of the truth as I can find in my reporting, regardless of my own opinion.

I agree that journalists are members of the community. They’re human first.

But I believe that a journalist’s best expression of citizenship is to “seek truth and report it,” as the Society of Professional Journalists code says.

So I won’t run for public office, because doing so would affect my ability to fulfill my role as a journalist. I’ll join a Rotary or Kiwanis club, but not write press releases for them.

And I didn’t take the bag of goodies from Dave the hot dog guy. But I did take his flier.

Tom


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