Election Ethics Dilemma


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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Elections often are seen as a chance to toss the rascals out of office.

But what if a reporter is worried that his work might allow a rascal to get into office?

That was the dilemma facing Victor Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics Magazine years ago. It was a dilemma that often faces political reporters: How information harmful to one political candidate might favor an opposing candidate.

Crown called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It was among the first calls to AdviceLine, which began operating on Jan. 22, 2001.

Something Bad to Happen

“I am about to do a story that may cause something bad to happen,” Crown told Dr. David Ozar, an AdviceLine call-taker who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Crown was writing an article about alleged conflicts of interest by republican U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois — described by Crown as a banking lawyer, a bank stockholder and a bank director — and his voting record on banking bills.

Publishing the story could prove helpful to a Fitzgerald political rival, and Crown feared that might be the worst of two evils.

“So he is wondering if he should sit on the story and not publish it, in order to avoid the potentially good consequences for a (rival) public official he does not trust or respect,” Ozar wrote in his report on this case.

AdviceLine cases usually are considered confidential, but Crown gave his permission for his case to be made public.

Someone To Talk To

As in most calls from journalists, Crown was looking for somebody to talk to about his ethics-in-government dilemma. Journalists sometimes call to confirm whether the manner in which they handled a story was ethically correct.

“We talked at length about weighing the professional obligation to tell the truth with courage against the potential negative effects of doing so…,” wrote Ozar. “Since conflict of interest on the part of the person being investigated is in itself a subtle ethical matter, there was also a lot of conversation between us about harmful versus non-harmful conflicts…”

In effect, Ozar urged Crown to follow one of the leading concepts of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: Seek the truth and report it.

Releasing The Information

In the end, Crown put all of his investigative information on a web site, so it could be examined by other journalists and the public to determine how well his evidence supported his report on Fitzgerald.

Crown took this action after discussing it with Ozar, who wrote: “I also judged that this is the most impartial way to release this information.”

Ozar concluded that Crown decided to publish “because it is the professionally right thing to do and because the other moral/ethical considerations in the matter are not sufficiently weighty to outweigh his professional commitments.”

Fitzgerald served in the U.S. senate from 1999 until his retirement in 2005, when he decided not to run for reelection. He was followed by democrat Barack Obama, who won in a landslide, becoming the senate’s only African-American member.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled about 1,000 inquiries since it began operating in 2001.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.



Visit the Ethics AdviceLine blog for more.