The way Brooke Hodges sees it, it’s not an either-or proposition. In order to be a reporter, you don’t have to make a choice between practicing journalism and being an active member of your community.
When it comes to ethics in small newsrooms like hers – she’s a one-woman editorial staff with the help of a few stringers – you don’t need extensive, 53-page ethics codes like you do at The New York Times. You don’t need to explicitly delineate what you are or aren’t allowed to do in your private life. You just need some common sense and a firm grip on the concept that being a reporter is only a job, especially when there are only 9,500 people in your town.
“Our town is so small, if you aren’t involved outside of the newspaper, you can’t have a life,” said Hodges, editor of the 4,100 circulation Winslow Mail in Winslow, Ariz. “Everybody’s kids play ball. Everybody goes to the same church.”
Being a journalist, Hodges said, doesn’t automatically mean that she can’t take active roles in groups other than the newspaper. “You’re entitled to have a life,” she said. “You’re entitled to have a family. You’re entitled to be involved in your community.”
Likewise, Tim Blagg doesn’t buy into the notion that one must divest oneself of nearly all civic ties – like running a charity drive or hanging out with a community power broker or political activist – in order to possess the title of journalist.
His Greenfield, Mass., newspaper, The Recorder, isn’t The Washington Post. And members of his young staff of 12 – who he said worry about scraping together enough money to pay the rent on modest salaries – don’t have the luxury of stock holdings that could pose any conflicts of interest with their reporting such as reporters at large papers do.
Ever since The New York Times’ editors revamped the paper’s ethics guidelines earlier this year and clamped down on a number of things the news staff could do – including banning political bumper stickers on the family car, restricting leadership roles in community organizations and requesting a review of what stocks the staffers own in the event that the stocks might ensnare reporters in an ethical quagmire – editors at other news organizations, particularly small ones, have collectively shrugged their shoulders.
The rules, they say, are a bit different here.
In towns where the population measures in the low thousands, where everyone knows everyone’s business, where journalists’ kids play ball with the town manager’s kids and copy editors carpool the police captain’s girls to dance class after school, do the same ethical rules apply? Should they? When a newspaper covers local bake sales and charity events on Page One – things you’d never see gracing the pages of The Times – is it a bad idea to let reporters be active participants in such activities?
As editor of The Recorder in Greenfield, a town with a population just under 19,000, Blagg said he doesn’t like serving as a member of the ethics police when he walks around the newsroom. He sees no reason to tighten his paper’s guidelines on what his photographers and reporters are allowed to do when they’re not on the job. In fact, Blagg wants to go in the opposite direction and allow more freedom and community participation.
“I don’t think it’s realistic or all to the good to set [reporters] in little vacuum bottles with no contact with the natives,” he said. Though he doesn’t want staffers holding public office or working for campaigns or protests, he said the only thing he’s worried about is whether the news he sees on the pages of The Recorder is fair.
A reporter on his staff works with a breast cancer organization that sponsors events covered by The Recorder. As long as her group’s activities don’t get more attention than other charity groups, Blagg’s OK with that. Having reporters such as this woman, who is making contacts and developing relationships within her community, only helps the newspaper, Blagg said.
In Beckley, W.Va., Larry Martin said that while the ethical rules at large news organizations should apply to small-town papers, in reality, they just don’t. “Small-town folks tend to be more community-minded and get involved in the PTO or Little League,” said Martin, editor of The Register-Herald, circulation 32,300. “They may have to be because there are far less people.”
Martin said that journalists can simultaneously serve on boards and serve their readers. For example, he belongs to the local Red Cross board of directors and was a member when his local chapter came under fire for failing to follow the national Red Cross guidelines on funding allocation. “I knew about it at a special meeting, that the Red Cross sent a letter and we were in trouble,” Martin said. But he turned around and gave that information to one of his reporters. “I couldn’t be a member of the board if they expected me not to announce the bad news,” he said.
Sheila Boggess, managing editor of Arkansas’ Baxter Bulletin, circulation 11,400, said she had an epiphany while doing research to commemorate her paper’s 100th anniversary. As she reviewed the first 25 years of Bulletin issues, she said she was struck by how active the first editor, Thomas Shiras, was in the town. One article she found featured Shiras standing on the banks of White River along with a poem he wrote about his vision for an area filled with dams and a lake system, which Boggess said is now at the heart of tourism in Baxter. Shiras even traveled to Washington, D.C., to campaign for funding to make his vision a reality, she said. “When I looked at that, it made me question whether I’m doing enough for my community,” Boggess said. “ … We are part of the community here.”
She said she doesn’t like the trend of insisting that if you’re a journalist, you must stand apart from your neighbors and “isolate yourself and put yourself in a vacuum.”
“I kind of changed my tune on this,” Boggess said, adding that now her paper sponsors a team for an American Cancer Society fund-raising event, The Relay for Life, and she has served on the board organizing it.
Andy Rieger, managing editor of The Norman Transcript in Norman, Okla., also encourages his staff of 21 to get involved in various civic organizations – with the exception of political groups – because he believes, in the long run, it benefits the paper in the form of news tips and story ideas. “We kind of expect our reporters to belong to churches and PTOs, to be involved in the community,” Rieger said. When Norman holds its Christmas in April event, where elderly folks’ homes are rehabilitated by volunteers, Rieger tells his staff he’d like them to become actively involved, even though the event gets coverage in the pages of the Transcript, circulation 16,500.
But the expectation is always there, Rieger said, that if a staffer becomes privy to some newsworthy information from their organization, the paper expects to be informed. “You have to remember that you’re a journalist first,” he said.
Meanwhile, in the hills of Massachusetts’ Berkshires, The Berkshire Eagle Editor David Scribner isn’t as charitable as Rieger, Boggess or Blagg. He’s a bit stricter about what ties his reporters may have to civic organizations. His staff of 21 reporters and photographers is barred from membership in any organization that could potentially fall within the purview of their beat, from elected or appointed boards, or organizations where they might make news. Ethics are ethics, no matter the size of the paper, he believes.
“It does separate you [from the community],” Scribner said. “It’s true. Sometimes you feel like an alien in your own community. … Journalists never have any friends.”
In the city of Pittsfield, population of nearly 46,000 and home of the Eagle newsroom, Scribner said that when the paper immersed itself in a major community issue – trying to buy land and build a new minor league baseball stadium for the city – it wound up disastrously and compromised the paper’s credibility, especially when the project required taking private land by eminent domain for the stadium.
Getting too close to institutions and power brokers in a community – no matter the size of the town or news organization – can be destructive to a reporter or organization’s reputation, Scribner said. “It’s really difficult in a small town,” he said. “When you’re in a small town, you’ll run into them everywhere,” creating ample opportunity for appearances of conflicts of interest.
Blagg disagreed. He said it doesn’t matter who his reporters are seen with out in public, just as long as the reporters’ stories are fair and balanced. “He [the journalist] can be buddies with whomever he wants,” Blagg said. “He can have beers with whomever he wants to.”
Scribner countered that no matter how harmless the organizations that reporters join may appear, complications constantly crop up. “You can’t avoid these conflicts,” he said. If a reporter is coaching a Little League team, that team may be covered by his paper’s sports pages. Or the reporter’s particular charity organization may be featured in the local news, Scribner said, giving critics something to sink their teeth into.
He pointed to an experience he had in joining the board of the Berkshire Opera as an example of how belonging to the most innocuous of community organizations can go awry. A classical music fan, Scribner said he thought that participating in the board would be a worthy cause. But at his first meeting, he heard about potential plans to buy a theater in the Pittsfield area. He soon realized that he couldn’t be a part of this type of decision-making that would be covered by his newspaper. “You have to be very careful,” he said.
At the same time, Scribner said, he doesn’t want to seal his staff off in a safe room. “We can’t be so puritanical about this that we cut reporters off from their lives,” he said.
Meanwhile, Jim Foudy, editor of the 20,000-circulation newspaper The Daily Hampshire Gazette in Northampton, Mass., thinks similarly. Yes, he’s read about The Times’ new guidelines, but he doesn’t think it’s necessary or valuable to go as far as his New York brethren with his staff of 48 journalists and photographers in order to produce a fair news product. He’s always on the lookout for conflicts that may harm his paper’s reputation.
While he prohibits his paper’s journalists from holding elected and appointed political posts, like The Times, he believes other levels of community participation should be taken on a case-by-case basis and shouldn’t be covered by blanket guidelines. “You don’t do that by telling people that they can’t participate in the lives of their communities,” Foudy said.
Foudy said he has one reporter on staff who has been extremely active in raising money for a scholarship program aimed at public school kids, which does get coverage in The Daily Hampshire Gazette. “I think that’s great,” Foudy said, adding that he makes sure the scholarship program doesn’t receive better coverage than similar endeavors. “He’s a guy who’s very clear about the line.” He said to devise guidelines to prevent this journalist from promoting this program “would be a shame.”
“We really work on the, ‘Let’s have a conversation’ (with the staff),” Foudy said. “People usually have a sense of what’s a little dicey.” As long as the editors and reporters are aware of any potential “time bombs” as far as staff commitments to organizations or outside ties to groups, they can collectively work to make sure the news coverage isn’t affected, he said.
But Alex Jones, director of the Shorenstein Center on Press Politics and Public Policy at the Harvard School of Government, disagreed. Jones, who said he has a small newspaper background, said it’s even more important in a small newspaper for reporters to take great pains to avoid any potential for conflicts of interest. “The whole issue is the credibility of the newspaper,” he said.
When a reporter or editor aligns himself with a cause or organization, that alignment jeopardizes the ability of the news organization to fairly present the news, he said. “I think the point of the newspaper is to tell people on all sides what’s going on,” Jones said.
While some editors – including those at The New York Times who crafted the new ethics guidelines – say they think it’s fine for reporters to be mere members (not leaders) of civic organizations such as PTAs and Rotary Clubs, Jones does not. “If you are in the PTA, and the PTA becomes the focus of a hot debate,” he said the reporter should not only refrain from covering the story, but the news organization should be wary of how the entire issue is covered. Asked whether he thinks prohibitions on club or association memberships separate journalists from community life, Jones replied, “That’s baloney.”
Bob Steele, senior faculty and ethics group leader for The Poynter Institute, a Florida-based journalism think tank, agreed, saying that the principles of journalistic independence from most public institutions – with the exception of religious organizations – should be respected, regardless of the size of a news organization. “Journalists should not put themselves in positions that erode their journalistic integrity” where there are potential “competing loyalties” pitting the journalists’ groups or causes up against the readers’ abilities to get fair and unbiased news, Steele said.
“I don’t think that journalists should be moral eunuchs,” he quickly added. “Each of us has connections to the community.” But it’s how deep those connections go that could create problems. In the PTA example, Steele said that if a parent/journalist were in a position to learn about potentially newsworthy issues in PTA meetings, that would pose ethical problems. He said he has no concern about journalists participating in parents’ nights or volunteering to read in classrooms, as long as their activities don’t delve into policy areas and they don’t cover anything related to education or the schools their children attend.
Restricting what a reporter does when she’s off-duty shouldn’t come as a surprise to those who’ve chosen journalism as their profession, Steele said. “I do believe that when we become journalists, we voluntarily give up some of our choices in how we carry out our personal lives,” he said. “… A journalist’s role (in society) is essential and unique.”
Bill Schmidt, who worked on The New York Times’ policy revisions and is the paper’s associate managing editor, said all reporters need to be careful about how their personal affiliations reflect upon their work and their news organization. “We are trying to emphasize the fact that a journalist lives in a world that other people don’t,” Schmidt said.
To Schmidt, his organization’s 53-page guidelines are nothing more than a logical approach to how all news organizations should view their responsibilities. “We live in a very big glass house here in the newsroom,” he said, adding that with public confidence in the media falling as a whole, industry leaders need to be heedful of the media’s integrity and strive to be as free from ethical entanglements as possible.
Asked if he thinks that small news organizations should craft similar restrictions on staffers like The Times did in its guidelines, Schmidt said, “The substance of (the ethics code) ought to be broadly applicable.
“We certainly are not telling people they cannot be part of the community,” Schmidt added. “… But you cannot be (a journalist) and be on the stage at the same time.”
Marla Prell – editor of the 4,000-circulation Miles City Star, in Miles City, Mont. – said there’s no way for journalists working in small communities to cordon themselves off from readers. “In a small community, so many people wear so many different hats, that’s part of the beauty of small towns,” she said. “… I don’t think much of a separation (between journalists and community) is necessary. In fact, I think in my community it would be the kiss of death.”
At one time, the Star’s sports editor served as a member of the School Board, Prell said, and did so without creating problems for the editor or the paper, which has a full-time staff of seven. The bottom line, she said, is that as long as the editors watch the copy, and the journalists try not to write about organizations to which they have ties, then she’s satisfied.
Prell’s husband is a police officer in Miles City, a town of nearly 9,000. Does that create potential conflicts? Of course, she said. “There are things I know that I can’t divulge,” she said, though she can help guide her reporters in the right direction for their stories.
Winslow’s Hodges said that if she finds herself in a sticky ethical situation, where she’s expected to cover an organization she’s personally linked to – such as her church – she assigns the story to a stringer. But she’s still the one who edits the story and lays out the paper. “Before we got our stringers, it was just me, and I had to (cover my church); I had no choice,” she said.
People in town acknowledge her dual roles, Hodges said, and have not given her grief about them. Everyone recognizes, she said, that the rules are different: “It has to be different because your entire existence, your entire life is different.”
Meredith O’Brien is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.