Risking the newsroom’s image

How editors, in a good cause, can strain independence

An ex-editor talks of his misgivings about a venture in community activism. But it was fulfilling, he recalls.

By David Boeyink

David Boeyink is an associate professor of journalism at Indiana University, Bloomington.

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. 8 (November 1989), p. 6.

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.

 

For what causes, if any, should a newspaper cross the line between editorial advocacy and community activism? The Owensboro (KY) Messenger-Inquirer crossed the line in 1983. We learned that even in a worthy cause, you don’t work on a complex issue for three years without getting your hands dirty – risking your credibility and perhaps raising expectations of future activism.

Our goal was low-cost higher education for Owensboro, Kentucky’s only urban area without a public college or university. The Messenger-Inquirer had agitated for state funds for years, without measurable effect. Access to low-cost education was critical for reviving the stagnant local economy, we believed, and those with greatest need, the poor and working-class people, were being left behind.

So when John Hager, the paper’s publisher and editor, was asked to help form a committee to work toward state funding, he accepted. Although I was editorial page editor, I also agreed to serve on that group.

We talked many times about the dangers of our participation. We knew we were risking the credibility of our news coverage and the independence of our editorial opinions. But we tried to minimize those risks. When the Committee on Higher Education began, we wrote a long editorial explaining that our personal involvement was unusual, an exception to what journalists often do. We argued that education was a fundamental need in Owensboro, compelling us to take the unusual step.

We continued to do editorials on education and in particular on issues brought up by the citizens committee and its proposals for a community college. At those times we included an editor’s note explaining the newspaper’s position and the role Hager and I played on the committee.

Although the newspaper was open about our involvement, the committee’s record for openness was ambiguous. The committee included broad representation – business, labor, education, women, minorities – and called regular public forums, but not every meeting was announced in advance to the media. While this ad hoc committee did not fall under the state’s open meetings law, the conflict between journalism’s commitment to openness and loyalty to the committee was unavoidable.

Because of our involvement, neither Hager nor I exercised direct control over the news coverage of this story. But readers are unlikely to believe that what the editorial page editor and the publisher do on a citizens committee has no impact on the newsroom’s coverage of that issue.

Outside the newsroom, our involvement could also create an expectation that the newspaper would be a team player and booster – rather than a disinterested observer and critic – in key community issues. How would we shed that expectation? How would we choose among issues?

For all that, our venture into community activism was successful: The state legislature approved a new community college in 1986, and a $13.5 million campus was dedicated in the spring of 1989.

Still, questions linger.

A newsroom’s independence may survive a limited amount of community involvement by the paper’s executives; but would it survive regular, or frequent, doses of activism? Even on this issue, the fairness of news coverage was challenged by a developer whose land was not chosen as the community college site.

If the issue had blown up in our faces, how would we have defended our credibility? Our involvement would have been far more controversial if the new community college had caused the closing of the two private colleges in Owensboro.

Finally, what damage to editorial independence follows in the wake of close cooperation with politicians? Will readers think that deals have been cut the next time the paper endorses some government project the politicians support?

Certainly, life would have been simpler had we not been involved with that committee. But one can also argue that a smaller community in distress has a right to expect community involvement from the head of one of its major institutions. In reality, Hager’s leadership was critical.

My position was more ambiguous. For me it was a long period of preserving an uneasy balance between editorial independence and corporate responsibility.

Despite that tension, my venture into community activism was the most satisfying experience of nine years as an editorial writer. Given a chance, I’d do it again.

Yet I still see activism as a limited exception, not a model. To risk one’s independence and credibility, the cause needs to be critical, the risks clearly understood, and the tough questions answered first.

 

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