Journalistic Ethics: Community Involvement Often Raises Ethical Conflicts

By Mike Farrell

How serious does a conflict of interest have to become before you can call it a conflict of interest? Believe it or not, this conundrum is intended as the start of an ethical discussion.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. The code also advises journalists to “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and to “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Many news media companies apply that injunction to those who gather, report and edit the news but not to those on the so-called business side of the operation.

So when the president of the University of Cincinnati abruptly announced he was resigning Aug. 21, one of those with a seat on the UC Board of Trustees was Margaret Buchanan, publisher and president of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The reason Greg Williams quit remains a public mystery. As Enquirer reporter Cliff Peale wrote in a Sept. 28 story, “It remains unclear, a month after Williams’ departure, whether he was forced to resign from his $451,000-per-year job six days before the start of fall classes. It’s also unclear why the board decided to award him a $1.3 million severance package.”

Publisher Buchanan announced she has resigned from the UC Board of Trustees. “My news team is reporting aggressively on the departure of UC President Greg Williams and the search for the next president,” Buchanan said in a statement reported Sept. 28 in the Enquirer. “The credibility that is so important to our news team’s work is my highest priority, and I did not want my involvement with UC to make it uncomfortable or confusing for them or for the community.”

Big questions do remain unanswered. First, why should the board of a public university be allowed to preside over a president’s resignation without giving account to the public whose sons and daughters attend there and to Ohio taxpayers who support it? And second, what earned Williams a severance package that looks to be three times his annual salary when so many people are out of work?

Give Buchanan points for recognizing the conflict and resigning her seat. The Enquirer stories I reviewed usually made note of her membership on the board, which would be consistent with the SPJ Code’s statement to “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Whether this conflict truly was unavoidable is a bigger question.

I also think it’s fair to question whether she really understands the conflict. Peale’s story also reported that after her resignation from the UC Board of Trustees, Buchanan was appointed chairwoman of UC Health, an affiliated health care company. While she’s off the Board of Trustees and out of that line of fire, she’s still involved with the university. Given the centrality of health care costs and policies, it’s hard to imagine she is not going to be at the center of important decisions that deserve public explanation. How will she and the region’s metropolitan newspaper handle that when news arises?

This is not the first time her community involvements have brought her public attention. City Beat, a local publication, reported in April that Buchanan sits on the executive committee of what it labeled a major real estate development connection and is in charge of overseeing publicity and marketing efforts for the organization.

Her role was not disclosed in a 1900-word Enquirer article that City Beat said lauded the efforts of this development group despite the economic downturn.

I fully understand that being involved with community enterprises is a perfect way for the news company’s top officer to associate with other local leaders, to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the community and to contribute to those efforts that are intended to improve the quality of life of residents. But it almost always raises questions and makes for some uncomfortable moments.

Where is the line when contribution becomes conflict of interest? Should a media executive sit on any board of a policy-setting public university where news is made routinely? Should a media executive take any role relating to publicity for any organization? If an executive sits on a university board, should he or she insist that there be no secrets no matter how embarrassing the event might prove?

This debate is more important than ever, given that most cities now have fewer media outlets than a few years ago. In a one-newspaper town such as Cincinnati, competing voices are unlikely to challenge the role Buchanan played and it will be uncomfortable for Peale or any reporter to dig out those facts.

As someone who served for 12 years as the managing editor of a community newspaper without an on-site publisher, I understand the importance of those community commitments and the potential for conflict.

Publishers and other media executives need to keep asking themselves whether their involvement will improve the community without impeding the community’s access to important information. They also must ask themselves if these positions don’t compromise the credibility of the journalists who work to inform the community.

I also wonder whether making decisions involving millions of public dollars and affecting 41,000 students is an appropriate position for any news media executive. It’s certainly a debate the profession should engage.

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