All in the family

When a journalist’s spouse creates a conflict of interests

It’s a situation news organizations face more and more: A journalist’s spouse or romantic interest poses a potential conflict. Is it fair to “penalize” a reporter for what his mate is doing?

By William McCann

William McCann was a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman.

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

Source: FineLine: The Newsletter On Journalism Ethics, vol. 2, no. 4 (July 1990), 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.

 

When my wife, Susan, confided that she wanted to run for the Austin City Council this spring, I didn’t know whether to cheer her on or chew her out.

It took me about a minute to decide to cheer, even though I had a feeling that my employer, the Austin American-Statesman, was not going to take it well.

Susan had been active in community issues long before I met her in 1987 and married her a year later. As a City Hall reporter in 1987 and 1988, I had to stay away from a few issues in which she was involved. It had been easy to avoid conflicts because fellow reporters readily took on those stories. So I figured we could do the same thing if she were elected, especially since I had been a business writer at the paper for the past year and was not covering City Hall news.

I felt I had no right to restrict Susan because of my job. After all, journalists with mates in other professions were facing similar situations without apparent repercussions.

One local reporter, for example, has had to stay away from covering the University of Texas because his wife is on the school’s executive staff.

Another reporter’s spouse is a public relations official for a major high-tech firm. The husband of American-Statesman Editor Maggie Balough has worked in local political campaigns and formerly was employed by the city of Austin. Even our publisher Roger Kintzel has seen nothing wrong with his dual role as publisher and as 1990 chairman of the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce.

When Susan formally announced, my supervisor, Michele Kay, the business editor, said she was worried about my status at the paper if Susan got elected. I said I thought we could avoid any conflicts, but if I saw a problem coming, I would inform her immediately.

The election campaign lasted five weeks with nightly forums, debates and precinct walks. I tried to stay out of the way, except to offer occasional advice, usually on little things like how to get her point across better at public meetings, and to chauffeur Susan around after she broke her toe.

On May 5, with only 15 percent of Austin’s voters going to the polls, Susan got the second highest number of votes in her race. This put Susan in a runoff.

At this point, Michele Kay informed me that Managing Editor David Lowery had voiced concern about my continuing as a business writer. I asked for a meeting with Kay, Lowery and Balough.

Lowery said he was worried about the “perception of a conflict” because the council is often involved in business issues. Keeping me out of a potential conflict would put undue pressure on Kay to juggle staff reporters, he said.

I understood his concerns and I believe he was genuinely trying to do what was best for the paper. But, we had avoided problems in the past and I felt we would continue to do so. There were plenty of stories to keep me busy and away from the council, I said.

Surely Balough would understand, I thought. I covered her husband when he was an assistant city attorney and later when, as a private attorney, he was hired by the city to represent Austin. At the time she was assistant managing editor.

Balough asked a question about my writing stories about local businesses. I took it to mean that she was questioning whether there were possible conflicts if I wrote about a business that may give Susan a political contribution. I acknowledged there could be a problem, but I felt any conflicts could be avoided. For one thing, most of her contributions were coming from friends and relatives. Also, records must be kept of campaign contributors and I figured I could check the list.

I did not mention Balough’s husband, but I did bring up Kintzel. Balough made it clear it was not a subject she wanted to discuss. Kintzel’s chamber connection had long been a sore point at the newspaper and some local weekly publications hammered regularly at Kintzel about it. Kintzel had strongly defended his position at the chamber, saying he had nothing to do directly with the paper’s editorial content.

Lowery made it clear that I had to leave the business desk. But what to do with me? I offered to take paid or unpaid leave until the campaign was over. Balough offered to move me to the lifestyle desk to write “how-to” features. I asked about an existing opening at the Capitol bureau covering state news. But Balough said the opening was not a priority. She left me to choose between features or vacation.

The more I thought about the features job, the madder I got. Features were OK, but I had been a hard news reporter for over 20 years. I decided to take vacation and volunteer for Susan’s campaign.

While away from work, I made up my mind to quit the newspaper whatever the election outcome. I was upset by what I believed was a double standard, one for me and another for company executives.

When the votes were counted, Susan was defeated. Her one regret, Susan said, was that she was responsible for me leaving my job. I held no such regrets.

In eight years with the newspaper, I had developed a good reputation in the community and among my peers. Neither my ethics nor my integrity had ever been questioned. I believe my record should have been taken into account.

Journalists often face situations where they must be trusted to do the right thing. With the increase in households with two professionals, editors and publishers are going to have to place a lot of trust in their employees. And, more importantly, editors and publishers must be in a position to set the highest standards themselves. 

For another view, see “Family feud: Handling conflicts between journalists and partners.”

Editors note: Austin American-Statesman Managing Editor David Lowery commented on this case, “We can’t simply ask our readers, ‘to trust us’ based on past experience and reputation. We must keep an arm’s length from the people we cover.”

 

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