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Columbia Missourian

DEAR READER: Navigating the ethics of in-house news requires a particular kind of scrutiny

By Tom Warhover
November 3, 2011 | 3:00 p.m. CDT

Dear Reader,

Walk with me for a moment on the trail of journalistic ethics.

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It involves a simple enough story: A family in the Thornbrook neighborhood is an important part of the annual fundraising efforts of CURED, a not-for-profit organization aiding research on eosinophilic enteropathy. That's a nasty disorder of the digestive system. People who have it risk starvation because they can't eat most foods.

The idea for the piece came from an alert editor who took note of a flier posted on a friend's Facebook page.

The family in question includes the Missourian’s director of photography, Brian Kratzer. So:

Is it OK for the director of photo to have his spouse and kids featured in the Missourian? Should the staff take photos of the editor's family?

Brian is a veteran photo editor and has dealt with plenty of ethical dilemmas. They usually involve the work of his staff, though, not him.

"Weird" is how he described the situation.

We walked through an informal checklist for decision-making.

First: He did the right thing in talking about it with his staff and with me. Disclosing (which I'm doing to you with this letter) and talking it out are in some ways more important than the final decision.

Second: We talked about the potential implications.

In all policies of the Missourian, this is the only sentence that carries an exclamation point. Here's what the Missourian policy says:

*Missourian staffers have lives outside the newsroom!

That's not a dirty little secret. It is something you should demand of your community journalists. They can know more about how to serve this town by being a part of it, not separated from it.

It is everyone's right to be involved in campus and community life, but we must protect both the reality and the appearance of the Missourian’s independence and impartiality...

Impartial. Not "unbiased." Not "objective." The Missourian, as a newspaper, just shouldn't take sides.

CURED is hardly political. Its advocacy is to find a cure. There could be political ramifications — taking public money to research one disease for another, for instance — but that isn’t the case here.

Journalists at the Missourian should not write about, report on, photograph or make news judgments about subjects with whom they have close ties.

Brian told me that his role in the fundraiser is to support his wife, who is the driving force.

Still, we settled on this: Brian wouldn't touch the story in any way. He wouldn't weigh in on the merits of the story at news meetings. He would abstain entirely.

I'm proud of the Missourian staff, students and professionals alike, for asking the right questions when it comes to ethical behavior.

Would you have answered the questions the same way? Ethical behavior is a human endeavor and, therefore, imperfect. Most of the time in the past century, though, the Missourian has gotten things right.