We always prefer tidy packages, black-and-white answers, clear-cut policies.
However, the world is a messy, interesting place. That's why your Advocate has an ethics board trying to bring some cadence to the cacophony.
At this week's board meeting, though, we couldn't come up with a clear-cut policy for how to handle advertising that might lead to a perception of bias. As I blogged about in advance of the discussion, we considered the inadvertent placement of a news story Sunday about DeTar Hospital near the hospital's front-page ad.
Board members agreed some readers might perceive a bias, even though we know the reporter developed the story independently of any advertising and feel confident he reported and presented the issue fairly. The catch is dealing with the perceptions of readers who don't know our internal processes as intimately as we do.
If we had noticed the conflict earlier than when the paper was about to print, some board members suggested we should have published the story on another day when the DeTar ad was not on the front page. Others argued against that approach, saying we would be allowing advertising to dictate the timing and placement of a news story.
What to do about such a Catch-22? Ultimately, we decided that no policy would cover all possible examples. We definitely want to be on the alert for any appearances of a conflict, but we also recognize advertising is a valuable service we provide our readers and customers. Related stories and advertising actually make a lot of sense in special sections such as our weekly "Get Out" entertainment guide and our upcoming livestock show tab.
The board's consensus was, if given the time to make the change, we should have published this story on another day in this particular case. However, we couldn't say we necessarily would do that with other examples that might arise.
The key is to be transparent with our readers about what we do and why as we follow the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics. We appreciate your feedback on these decisions. After all, the bottom line is preserving and enhancing our credibility with you. Our special relationship with our audience makes a community newspaper all the more valuable to advertisers.
As an aside, I want to add that "Catch-22" is one of my favorite books. I share this passage to brighten your weekend:
"Major Major had been born too late and too mediocre. Some men are born mediocre, some men achieve mediocrity, and some men have mediocrity thrust upon them. With Major Major it had been all three. Even among men lacking all distinction he inevitably stood out as a man lacking more distinction than all the rest, and people who met him were always impressed by how unimpressive he was."
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