Wick Communications

The newsmaker test

In journalism on September 16, 2010 at 4:27 pm

This week, one Wick managing editor grappled with a pleasant kind of dilemma. He thought he might be asked to join the local chamber of commerce board of directors and he wondered aloud whether that was such a good idea.

As newspaper quandries go, this was a good one. As I told him I thought it was wonderful that local civic leaders think of him as a leader, a man of vision and someone with good ideas. And we want to be engaged in our communities. However…

It’s pretty easy to imagine a conflict down the road.

  • What if he learns sensitive details about a new business coming to town and is told that if word leaks the business will look elsewhere?
  • What if he learns in closed session of trouble within the organization?
  • What if he’s asked to vote on whether to support a tax increase measure?

Well, you get the picture…

I told him that an association with a likely newsmaker, such as the local chamber, makes me nervous.

I think key to making the decision for yourself is found in the word, “newsmaker.” I think it’s great if you want to volunteer in your community. It builds goodwill. It identifies sources for later use. It fills you with a sense of purpose. But I would seek out opportunities with organizations that aren’t in the news much.

The late Thomas Winship, the former editor of the Boston Globe, made a similar distinction in his essay in “Drawing the Line,” a book that looks at 31 ethical dilemmas and how editors played them.

Winship outlined the case of a photographer who wanted to moonlight with the Boston Red Sox. The guy wanted to shoot promotional photos for the team on his off time. Winship said no, and here was his reasoning:

The Globe argued that to have its news staffers associated directly with newsmakers undermines the integrity and credibility of the newspaper – that once it became known that a news staffer was working for the Red Sox, the public would begin to lose confidence in the impartiality of Globe coverage.

I think these can be tough calls. I don’t like to squelch outside earning opportunities, and what is true of the relationship between the Boston Globe and the Red Sox may not be true of the Toledo Blade and the Toledo Mud Hens baseball club. Each community is different and the issues can shift.

The important thing is to acknowledge the potential conflict and hash it out.

Clay

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