Wick Communications

I have a conflict

In Ethics on July 12, 2012 at 8:28 pm

Thursday came word that a schools reporter for the Alexandria News, in Alexandria, Va., was simultaneously a paid consultant working for the local school district, the same district she covered for the newspaper. You might expect said reporter to be chastened when confronted with this conflict, but then you don’t know Alexandria News co-founder and reporter Carla  Branch.

Initially, I found her explanation more surprising than the actual conflict. Then I realized that so many people caught plagiarizing or in a conflict like this have some rationalization. It’s a self-defense mechanism. Branch printed hers in her own newspaper. It looks like the newspaper closed comments on the piece. I learned of it from Jim Romenesko.

Branch argues that there is no conflict because it was a competitive contract, she has kids in district schools, and, therefore, wants only what’s best, and because she signed a confidentiality clause that prohibits her from sharing any information she gleans in the course of her work for the district.

All of which is just nuts. Of course it’s a conflict. Some conflicts are more a matter of appearance. This one – a source paying a reporter – is a conflict by any definition.

We live and work in small communities. I don’t think we have to give up our right to civic involvement just because we work for a news organization. But I do think we need to be cognizant at all times of our implied contract with readers: We will engage in nothing that puts our integrity at issue.

(As an aside, remember that your correspondence with officialdom may be public record. You don’t want to find yourself, as Tania deLuzuriaga did several years back, answering to extremely embarrassing emails she wrote to a top administrator of the school district that she covered for the Miami Herald. Not that it seems to have hurt her career much. LinkedIn says she is now a communications officer for Harvard University.) …

I think it’s fine to be a member or the Rotary Club, join the city administrator in coaching a Little League team and even to, say, be a member of the school PTA if you sometimes cover school issues. But some activities should give you pause. Here’s some help:

Don’t take anything of value. If you are taking payment from a source, no matter how occasional or the reason, you are doing something wrong. You know that already. If it feels wrong, it’s probably wrong.

Establish what “value” means. Many newsrooms use the $20 limit, meaning a source can occasionally buy you lunch. To me, it’s not so much the amount, it is more the intent. A savvy PR consultant knows what she is doing when she asks to buy you lunch; the nice grandmother who brings you cookies because she likes your story about the knitting club has a different intent. My rule is to say no on gifts, even the little things, unless saying no would seem petty and an insult.

Talk to your boss and peers. You likely know when something could be construed as a conflict. Discuss it with your boss. Discuss it with me. I’m happy to offer my opinion.

Clay

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