Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pa., Morning Call, took part in a gay-rights parade on June 17 and stirred up a classic ethical dilemma. The situation raises any number of questions about what is and isn’t a conflict of interest. So let’s do an ethical analysis.
WHAT: Assemble the facts and describe the situation. Whelan, 56, and his partner of 25 years were the co-grand marshals of a gay-pride parade. His newspaper prohibits employees from taking part in “public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause.” His editors say Whelan didn’t seek their permission to participate in the event. A subsidiary publication co-sponsored the parade, but Call editors say they didn’t know of Whelan’s involvement until they saw a press release. Two days before the parade, they warned him that his role would be a conflict, a breach of the code, and that there would be “consequences” if he participated.
Question: What should those “consequences” be for Frank Whelan?
WHO: Consider the decision-maker and the parties affected by that person’s decision. Put yourself in the position of the editor who must decide how — or whether — to punish Whelan. As for those affected, the major stakeholder obviously is Whelan. Others include his partner, the parade organizers, proponents and opponents of gay rights. The newspaper’s reputation is hugely at stake. And of course its readers have a stake in this situation, too, but not nearly as great as the newspaper’s.
WHY: The first four principles of the “Act Independently” section of the SPJ Code of Ethics seem particularly applicable here. It’s unprofessional, and unethical, to engage in activities that “may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” But there are other questions that should be asked. Is “gay pride” a political cause? Was the parade a demonstration or merely a celebration, intended to advocate or merely to entertain? The newspaper noted that a Web site promoting the parade said naming Whelan and his partner grand marshals “supports the need for Marriage Equality.”
A reporter shouldn’t be an active advocate for a particular point of view about a subject he’s covering. But how far does that go? If a political reporter can cheer for the hometown team, should a sports reporter be able to back a political candidate? How many rights must journalists give up when they accept the idea that they should be detached observers? Would we feel differently about this if it had been an anti-abortion parade? What about an Italian-American reporter marching in a Columbus Day parade?
Isn’t it better to acknowledge — and disclose — one’s interests than to deny them? Avoiding membership or participation doesn’t guarantee objectivity. Some reporters who make a great show in the newsroom of avoiding any ties to anything can be among the most biased in their reporting.
HOW: Your decision. In this case, you’d want to be fair to a longtime employee — minimizing harm, in other words. Is a suspension in order? Paid or unpaid? A change in assignment, perhaps? Or would that be too harsh? The important thing is to ask the right questions (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), to satisfy yourself that your solution is the best outcome — and to be able to explain it. Put it in writing to be sure it makes sense.
The final outcome of the Whelan case wasn’t determined when this was written.
Whelan, upset by his employer’s reaction, took two days off after which the paper told him it would consider that an unpaid suspension. As of late July, he still hadn’t returned to work, was on unpaid leave and had notified the paper of his intent to sue.