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Personal life vs. public reporting: The battle between journalists and conflict of interest

By CALLIE GOOD

The Society of Professional Journalists' (SPJ) Code of Ethics states that journalists should "act independently" and "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." But where is the line drawn? How much of a reporter's personal life can editors and publishers control by this seemingly simple ethical suggestion? In some situations, these "conflicts of interest" are blatant and the answer is clear, no questions asked. But in most cases, there is no easy solution, no concrete line that can be set. Take Chuck Laszewski and Rick Linsk for example. One misinterpretation of a "conflict of interest" left them suspended without pay from their jobs at St. Paul's Pioneer Press.

In the fall of 2004, right before the presidential elections, the music tour Vote for Change, headlining Bruce Springsteen, toured the nation, particularly the swing states to encourage citizens to vote. Although the tour and its organization were non-partisan, most of the musicians performing were encouraging voters to vote for John Kerry.

When the tickets went on sale in August for the tour's stop in St. Paul, reporter Rick Linsk was thrilled.

"I didn't consider it as a political donation," Linsk said. "I'm a huge Springsteen fan. Anytime Bruce comes, I go."

Meanwhile, a handful of news organizations around the country were setting limits on their staff and banning them from attending the concert. There was no word from Vicki Gowler, the editor at the Pioneer Press, so Linsk bought tickets.

At the end of September, just a week before the concert in St. Paul, Gowler sent a memo out to her staff. The memo said that anyone who covered politics, elections, or serves for weekend general assignments shouldn't attend the concert. Linsk and Laszewski were on the investigative reporting team.

"My job doesn't fall into those categories," Linsk said. "I didn't consider [the memo] to apply to me."

But it wasn't so much Gowler's request that seemed unreasonable as it was the timing.

"She sent that memo a week before the concert," said Linsk. "She waited 'til she had her finger in the wind to sense where everyone else was coming from before making a stand."

Linsk and his wife attended the concert on October 5, 2004; Laszewski brought his son.

It wasn't until two days later that Linsk was approached by his editor. He was called into a series of meetings and chastised for attending the concert despite the email. Linsk and Laszewski were both given a punishment of suspension without pay for three days.

But instead of lying down and taking the punishment, the reporters and their union fought back.

They arbitrated the agreement to try and get the suspension overturned.

"We didn't think they had the right under our union contract to discipline us," said Linsk. "The paper didn't have the power to suspend anyone. They could change our beat, but couldn't suspend us."

Newspaper Guild Officer Mike Sweeny agreed. According to an interview by Fox News, he stated that the news organizations have a right to be concerned with the ethical choices its' employees make off-duty, but they can't be allowed to subjectively decide what is a conflict.

The arbitration involved dozens of people and dragged out for months. Almost exactly a year later, the reporters settled. They were awarded two of the three days pay they missed. A letter was put in their files reversing the suspension, but they were also given a strict warning if anything like this was to happen again.

According to Linsk, "Both sides got something."

What started out as a misunderstanding turned into a worldwide story. Articles ran in the Star Tribune and the City Pages. Dozens of letters to the editor were written, in astonishing favor of the reporters. Hundreds of bloggers across the world put in their two cents. Linsk and Laszewski were twisted into rebels looking for a way to defy their editor, rather than the Springsteen-loving concertgoers that they actually were.

"I didn't do a defiant thing," Linsk said. "This was not about politics, this was about rock and roll."

Gowler was unavailable for comment.

This story is just one of many where editors and publishers have punished their reporters for their personal lives becoming "conflicts of interest." Just this year, Marissa Blaszko, opinion editor of The Recorder, the campus paper at Central Connecticut State University, was fired from her position as opinion editor for her prominence in campus activism and her membership in the Youth for Socialist Action club.

This brings back the question of what really defines a conflict of interest?

"Conflict of interest back in the old days was if someone gave you something to influence you to write a certain way," Linsk said. "Now it's about revealing your personal preferences in a way that tips your hand; it's backwards, it's not what I learned."

Andy Schotz, the chair of the Ethics Committee at SPJ, agrees that there is no easy definition, but sides with the papers.

"The different organizations might have different opinions on what constitutes as a conflict of interest," Schotz said. "But no matter what, they want to avoid the appearance that their journalists are taking a particular side on something that they or the newspaper is covering."

The New York Times' ethical policy states that:

"The people of our company are family members and responsible citizens as well as journalists. Nothing in this policy is intended to abridge their right to live private lives - to educate their children, to worship and to take part in community affairs. But like other dedicated professionals, we knowingly accept disciplines - in our case, with the goal of ethical and impartial journalism."

Schotz agrees with this, saying that "you don't want to give up all your rights as a citizen, but as a journalist, you make sacrifices."

These sacrifices include serving on government boards or other government positions, giving money to a political party, or, as in the Pioneer Press case, attending politically charged events.

But some journalists question the necessity for the public to be unaware of a reporter's opinion.

"Everyone here has some personal bias," Linsk said. "Is it better for the readers if we hide it?"

Schotz thinks it is.

Regardless of what you do at the newspaper, he says, whether it's on the business side or the reporting side of the wall, you still represent the paper and your actions need to reflect that.

So are the ethical limits set for journalists too strict? There may never be a clear answer to this question. It will always depend on the person's job, the type of publication they work for, and of course, the situation. But as Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel say in "The Elements of Journalism," the number one loyalty reporters have is to the citizens and that is something that, no matter what the ethical issue at hand, should be maintained.