Ethics Scenario: All The News That Fits

Tomorrow, I will be leading a four-day candidate training program with the University of Virginia’s Sorensen Institute for Political Leadership. More on that program here.

The program is an ethics-based soup-to-nuts campaign school, and I provide the ethics training piece. My bit is part lecture, part case study, and part small group exercises. I thought you might be interested to look at one of the hypothetical scenarios I developed for use in this (and other) programs.

The following scenario is based on a real event. See if you can guess which one. More important, see if you can answer what I ask students to answer: In this story, who has an ethical dilemma, when do they have it, and what is it? There is more than one answer.

All The News That Fits

Bill Jones is an investigative reporter at the Fallswood Bee, one of the major metropolitan daily newspapers in a Midwestern state. It is October of a presidential election year, and the state is considered an important “swing state.” Many see this election as pivotal and emotions are high. The Bee’s editorial pages have endorsed the challenger.

American rock legend Freddy “Snake” Smith has planned a brief tour to raise money and support for the presidential challenger. There is a stop planned for Fallswood in the second weekend in October, to be held at a venue in an area of town that many consider “tough.”

Janice Frederick is Editor of the Fallswood Bee. Concerned for the nonpartisan reputation of her newspaper, she issues a memo one week before the concert. “To all Weekend, General Assignment, and Political Reporters,” she writes. “Please be reminded that the Bee’s ethics policy bars Bee reporters and editors from ‘activities that conflict with your status as objective news professionals.’ This includes concerts that are held as political fundraisers.”

Come Monday after the concert, editor Frederick has a nagging hunch. She asks a Bee reporter who lives near the concert hall, Karen Archer, whether she knows of any Bee reporters who attended the “Snake” Smith concert. Archer is a good friend of Jones and works with him on various stories. She says she saw Jones walking on the sidewalk in front of the concert hall with his wife. Jones, when asked, says he did see the “Snake” Smith show. His wife, a freelance rock and roll writer, needed to attend for an article she was working on, and asked him to come along to provide a sense of safety in the rough neighborhood.

Frederick suspends Jones from the newspaper for three days for violating the Bee’s ethics code after being explicitly reminded not to. Jones contests the suspension to publisher Frank Shanahan, saying that, as an investigative reporter, the memo did not apply to him because it referred to other kinds of reporters instead. Frederick says that’s irrelevant, as the ethics code applies to all reporters, not just those she named in the memo. The issue has garnered unwelcome attention from many quarters: other reporters are threatening to strike; the incumbent’s political campaign is calling “foul;” and the press trade journals are watching Shanahan’s decision because it is considered unusual for a publisher to overturn actions by editors as this impairs journalistic objectivity.

Published by

Brad Rourke

Executive editor of issue guides and program officer at the Kettering Foundation.

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