Cedar Rapids Gazette, Avoiding ethical conflicts in small towns

By Steve Buttry

How do small-town journalists maintain credibility while covering public officials who may be their family and friends?

Matt Baron, a friend who works as a freelance journalist, journalism trainer and public relations consultant in Oak Park, Ill., passed that question along to me after a journalist facing that situation posed it at a recent workshop.

I answered that this was not necessarily a small-town problem: When I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald and my son, Mike, was press secretary for Sen. Chuck Hagel, I had to discuss with my editors when and how to keep a proper distance from the senator. But small-town journalists certainly deal more often with that uncomfortable matter of covering people with whom they have personal relationships.

This situation is addressed squarely in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. One of the core principles is: "Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."

The seven bullets that elaborate deal with accepting gifts or special treatment but don't specifically address this question of close relationships. A couple points offer guidance, though: "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and "Disclose unavoidable conflicts." A third point underscores that associations are important, but isn't particularly helpful in dealing with family relationships: "Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." You can't remain free of relatives and you can't control their activities.

Bob Steele's 10 questions to guide ethical decisions also provide some guidance, but don't address this specific issue. Question 7 ("How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?") is a good one. How would you feel if you were reading a story written by someone you knew had a close relationship to a source? Questions 9 (what are alternatives?) and 10 (how can you justify your decision to the public?) are helpful, too.

My response is that you need to employ some combination of three factors:

  • Full disclosure to your editors.
  • Proper distance from the source.
  • Transparency with the public.

The right combination of these factors will vary with the situation. My view is that you always disclose any potential conflict (or appearance of conflict) to your editors. This way you turn every decision into a collaboration. In Omaha, I didn't always agree with my editors' decisions, but discussing and disagreeing is a better situation than failing to disclose and being accused of unethical behavior.

Of course, no transparency with your audience is needed if you decide the proper distance is for you not to cover stories that deal in any way with a particular person because of the close relationship.

From 2000 to 2005, I was a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald. For all but one year of that stretch, my son Mike worked for Hagel, initially as a press aide, then as press secretary and later as communication director. He eventually became Hagel's chief of staff, though I had left the World-Herald by then.

The World-Herald had an outstanding political reporter, Dave Kotok (now the managing editor), and usually Dave and our Washington reporters covered Hagel. But I was the national correspondent, which meant that I could be called on to help with political coverage and that I would cover some national issues that could involve Hagel.

It's good to anticipate these issues and discuss them in general terms before a particular story presents a problem (which may need a swift decision). My editors and I discussed the situation as soon as Mike went to work with Hagel. We decided I shouldn't write stories that were primarily about Hagel or where Hagel was a primary source.

If I was reporting a story and it seemed like we should have a Hagel comment as a minor element of the story, we decided I could go ahead and handle that. In those cases, I would arrange any interviews through someone else in the press office, rather than calling Mike.

I also informed my editors of my deal with Mike: All discussions between us were off the record, but if I heard something I wanted to pass along to a colleague, I would ask him for permission and abide by his response. (I did frequently hear news from Mike that I wished we could publish in the World-Herald, but abided by his wishes to keep it off the record.)

This worked fairly well. I seldom dealt with Hagel. But I should add that efforts to keep personal relationships at arm's length sometimes don't work out the way you plan. I might arrange an interview through someone else in the press office and plan to keep everything professional, but when Hagel, a gregarious man, came on the phone, he would invariably start the conversation with some flattering remark about my son or some teasing remark about trying to straighten my kid out. So much for arm's length.

After the 9/11 attacks, much of my work for the next few years focused on the University of Nebraska at Omaha's Center for Afghanistan Studies and its involvement in Afghanistan, both historically and in assisting the Karzai government. This story fit neatly into my beat and it mostly wasn't about Hagel. But Hagel served on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was heavily involved in Afghan affairs and UNO's role there. I could argue that by steering away from Hagel stories for ethical reasons (I did alert the Washington bureau to some), I undercovered his role in an important local story. Which approach would serve the public better: Keeping my distance from Hagel or accurately reflecting the local senator's involvement in an important issue?

When President Bush came to Omaha to tout some program he had just announced, I agreed to my editors' request to be the primary rewrite person for the story, compiling feeds from various reporters at the scene into a single story. Only later, when I realized that Hagel had traveled to Omaha with the president (with Mike accompanying him) and appeared with the president at the rally, did I realize I should have suggested someone else for rewrite duty. I did balk at any involvement in covering future visits to Omaha by President Bush.

My editors had less problem than I did with my involvement in covering Hagel. They said they trusted my integrity. I said I appreciated that, but I didn't like the appearance (remember the SPJ's admonition to avoid "real or perceived" conflicts). During the 2004 campaign, Hagel (despite considerable friction with Bush) served as co-chair of Bush's Nebraska campaign and I said I should avoid coverage of Bush campaign visits. My editors respected that.

Then one Friday, I got a request from the bosses: They would be short-handed Monday and Bush was going to be campaigning in Des Moines. Could I cover that, since Hagel wouldn't be accompanying him there? Sure, I said. Only later did I learn that Hagel (then considering a 2008 presidential run, so he no doubt was trying to build some Iowa contacts) would spend the weekend campaigning in Iowa, accompanied by Mike. (Parents frequently don't know about their adult children's business travels.) I covered Bush in Des Moines (Hagel was not there) but then told my editors that I simply needed to stop covering him, period. They again expressed their trust in my integrity, but agreed to honor my wishes on Bush coverage.

In retrospect, I think I should have insisted more firmly earlier on greater distance from coverage dealing with Hagel. Mike and I share a distinctive last name and lots of people in the Omaha area knew he was my son. I also suggested a few times that an editor's note should disclose the relationship and my editors always thought no note was necessary. These aren't black-and-white calls where I can say I was right and they were wrong, but I favor greater transparency than they did.

The situation that the reporter described in raising the issue with Matt Baron was similar but perhaps more difficult to work around: The reporter in a small town was covering a government body where his uncle was an elected official. Sometimes in a small town, you can't just assign someone else, as we could at the World-Herald.

Sometimes in a small town, you don't even know about conflicts. In the 1970s I covered city government in Shenandoah, Iowa, where my father had been a pastor (he had moved away by the time of the incident in question). Some clients and employees of an agency that helped underprivileged people complained at a city council meeting about the management approach of two board members of the agency, which received some city money (or might have used city property; for some reason these people came to the council). I reported on the complaints, angering at least one of the board members.

Only later did I learn from my father that he had served on the agency's board when he was in town and had disagreements with the same two board members over some of the exact same issues they raised a few years later with the city council. Ignorant of Dad's involvement (what teen-ager pays attention to his parents' civic activities?), I could not have avoided the conflict. But I'm sure the angry board member thought Dad's involvement in the board skewed my coverage of the controversy.

My advice to journalists who have to cover news that involves relatives (or close friends): Rearrange assignments when you can. Disclose potential conflicts to the public when you can't avoid them. Invite public feedback on all content, so that any accusations about favoritism will be made directly to you in story comments or letters to the editor. This way you can address the issue directly rather than have it circulate unchallenged in local gossip.

For more information, see Steve Buttry's blog