Agreeing to disagree

How one newspaper handles off-hour activities

How do you maintain your newspaper’s credibility when your policy is not to restrict the outside activities of reporters?

By Greg Brooks

Greg Brooks is the metro editor for The Anaheim (CA) Bulletin.

Author bio information is from the time of article submission and may not be current.

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 1, no. 6 (September 1989), pp. 1,8.

This case was produced for FineLine, a publication of Billy Goat Strut Publishing, 600 East Main Street, Louisville, Kentucky 40202. Reprinted with the permission of Billy Goat Strut Publishing. This case may be reproduced for classroom and research purposes. Publication of this case in electronic or printed form requires written permission from the publisher and Indiana University. An exception is granted for use in readers designed for specific academic courses.

 

It was the day after the Supreme Court had announced its decision on Webster vs. Reproductive Health Services, and our city beat reporter said she was attending a pro-choice vigil that night. The rally was at the office of a state assemblyman we usually didn’t cover.

“I wouldn’t do that,” I said.

Like a lot of newsroom decisions, this was a seat-of-the-pants kind of thing. I didn’t think I had any legal grounds to keep her away, but my stomach knotted at the thought of someone seeing her there.

The assemblyman was a leader in the capital – someone we might cover in the future. I said her attendance might make it hard to assign her certain stories down the line.

That was the beginning of a standoff: She wanted to go, and I was dead-set against it. She didn’t think I could stop her, and I thought she was probably right.

The fact that she’d been invited by a reporter from The Orange County Register, who had in turn been invited by a staffer from the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, didn’t help matters any.

“Why should I have to worry about how this affects my job if they don’t?” she asked.

A good question and the policy guide of The Anaheim Bulletin wasn’t much help answering it. Working for another paper and other outside employment are prohibited, but there wasn’t anything regarding off-hours activity. Later, the managing editor told me it was something he and the editor had always wanted to address, but had never quite gotten around to doing.

On top of everything else, the editor-in-chief was on vacation. I was on my own.

After gathering my thoughts and jotting down a few notes, I got everyone together. I made the following points:

Objectivity is sort of a journalistic Holy Grail, something you search for but really never find. Lacking that, the best we can hope for is diligence and the appearance of non-biased coverage. Once a journalist gets involved in activism or politics, credibility goes down the drain.

Some reporters said they couldn’t be held liable for their actions away from work, and I agreed. My position – and the position of my paper I later found out from the editor – was that there wasn’t any legal way to tell reporters what they could and couldn’t do when they were off work. The only way around this, the editor said, was to have everyone working on a contract basis where off-hours behavior was specifically covered within the contract.

Still, I pointed out, reporters are the only human contact many would ever have with our newspaper.

The staff might not owe The Bulletin anything away from the office, but while they’re at work they owe it a job well done. Could they do that if someone recognized one of them from his activism?

The damage might not be calculable in dollars and cents, but it could damage the paper’s reputation – particularly at a small paper in competition against metro behemoths.

One reporter asked: “So if we all attended anti-abortion or pro-choice rallies, you couldn’t assign any of us stories on the subject?”

No, I said, it would just be something to consider in assigning stories. Biased reporting doesn’t worry me nearly as much as the appearance of bias– copy can always be edited; actions can’t.

My job is to balance the needs of my staff and the paper – without compromising either one. Since I don’t think I can control what reporters do after hours the only alternative is a kind of detente.

I asked the reporters to tell me, as a professional courtesy and for their own good, whenever they planned to attend something of a political nature. I respect a reporter’s right to privacy, but I hoped they’d respect my need to protect the paper.

Did it work? Well, the reporter who wanted to attend the rally decided not to go. Other reporters liked having a chance to open up about ethics issues and said nothing like that had been done at The Bulletin before.

That week, and every week thereafter, we’ve held “ethics roundtables.” Reporters come up with their own topics, compare their judgment calls with the rest of the staff.

Granted, my job would be a lot easier if we had guidelines on outside activities. Would I want a written policy? No, I would still rather count on a reporter to make the right decision than to infringe on his or her private life away from work.

For further analysis of this issue, see “Freedom of political expression.”