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By Casey Bukro
Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists
Elections are a backbone of democracy. They offer voters choices.
They can be battlegrounds, the stuff of conflict and divisive bickering. And they can be peaceful transitions of leadership, opening the way for new directions in policy and thought.
Elections of national importance are in the news almost every day.
Less noticed, but also important, are elections at the local level – like electing school board candidates.
These, too, can be controversial and pose questions that can cause a wise journalist to pause and consider. It might not make national news, but it might be important to a local community and to a local news staff.
For example, an Iowa editorial page editor contacted the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists with this question: Should a journalist (in this case a local television anchor) be running for public office (in this case, a local school board)?
This is about as local as local news can get. But it’s important to an Iowa community and, in this case, to journalism ethics.
“There are several professional ethical issues about conflict of interest here,” said the AdviceLine advisor, David Ozar, who responded to the editor’s query.
The news anchor benefits from public recognition, which enhances electability. This, by itself, does not raise an ethical question, said Ozar, since all of the candidates probably are known to the voting public in a small community.
But there is a strong likelihood the public will think the news anchor expects to benefit from the journalist’s high visibility.
“In other words,” said Ozar, “even if the anchor were to refuse to publicly discuss the election and the school board’s business while doing his or her anchor job, there is still a question about whether the appearance of impropriety is damaging to journalism in that place and how much.
“But a more urgent question is how likely it is that a TV anchor can go through a whole election season and then, if elected, his or her term in office without mentioning the election or school board business on the air?”
The TV anchor could choose to be neutral about reporting about the school board election. But if the anchor is not neutral, “then there is no question that doing this would violate the impartiality required of good journalists.”
Viewers will come to their own opinions about whether the TV anchor is being properly impartial.
Journalists might see public benefits in serving on the school board, “but that benefit must definitely outweigh the harm to journalism’s commitment to impartiality for such a judgment to be defensible,” according to Ozar.
These ethical concerns can be heightened if the TV station’s management believes the anchor’s election to the school board is good for the station, such as having easier access to school board news.
“In fact,” concluded Ozar, “it would be surprising that the station acted as if no professional journalistic values were at stake in the anchor’s decision to run.”
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.