EDITORIAL: Journalistic ethics don’t allow newspapers to have ‘skin in the game’
In recent weeks, citizens of Liberty Hill watched the publisher of the weekly Leader circulate a petition to block the City Council from using the lowest-cost financing method available to improve the community’s water supply. Because of the low number of voter signatures required, the publisher easily obtained them and presented her petition hours before the Council was scheduled to act.
The petition forced the City to decide whether to shelve its water improvement plan and become dependent on other area water sources or find another way of financing. By forcing the Council into the dilemma to either capitulate or go around her and choose another form of financing, the weekly Leader wound up costing Liberty Hill taxpayers at least $82,000 in additional interest and fees. The taxpayers will pay for the political gamesmanship and activism.
This isn’t the weekly Leader’s first brush with political activism. In February, the owner of the publication attempted to thwart the merger of the water supply corporation with the City by demanding that a state agency hold a hearing on the matter. All of the parties involved had already approved the transfer of the water system.
In 2010, the publisher filed criminal complaints with the District Attorney’s Office relating to the City’s involvement in the 2009 Shin Oak Festival. The District Attorney did not pursue the complaints, but taxpayers footed the bill for attorneys fees and county investigators.
To those who say The Independent is trying to draw a clear distinction between ourselves and the other newspaper, we say, yes. That’s true. There is a clear difference. And we are fine with those who say we are attempting to carve out a competitive edge. We want readers to understand that at the heart of our profession lies the fundamental difference between the two publications.
Legitimate newspapers and journalists aren’t allowed to behave as obstructionists and political vigilantes. Journalistic standards and ethics guard against becoming part of the story. The first college course in journalism teaches and warns against any kind of political or social activism outside of carefully worded editorial comment that is always to be labeled as opinion. Newspapers can call on government to do the right thing, but we can’t cross the ethical line to take matters into our own hands.
Newspapers are part of the public trust. It’s a sacred trust that reporters, who often risk their lives to report the truth, believe in deeply. In fact, when those of us in the media do our jobs correctly we aren’t seen as allies of anyone. It’s a lonely job, not to be taken lightly by individuals who haven’t paid the dues of becoming educated on the rules of behavior or for those who quickly succumb to the warmth of political power or promises of future relationships.
We have known many who have hated us on Monday, only to come to respect and believe in our reporting before the end of the week. Although we are human, we can’t allow ourselves to worry about who likes or dislikes us. Our duty is to present the facts. We are fortunate to live in a democracy where the people get to make the decisions.
It’s the job of reporters and news publishers to stick to the truth and report it without bias or malice. In doing so, newspapers avoid lawsuits for libel and slander. As professional journalists, we don’t get to believe too strongly in anything except the truth and the facts.
After we report a story, editors and publishers may bring attention to an important issue if it falls within the spectrum of the community’s interest. Readers of The Independent know the difference between the news articles on the front page of this newspaper and the editorials that are clearly labeled as such on the inside. We never get to jump into the story or attempt in any way to influence the outcome of the news.
Now comes the question of motive.
Newspapers can’t be in the business of seeking to settle personal grudges or even political scores. Newspapers can’t be in the business of standing in the back of the room and threatening to un-elect politicians. Newspapers can’t be in the pocket of those who stand to gain financially from various business transactions and schemes.
Our job is to report the truth, regardless of the winners and losers. We don’t get to choose who wins the lottery, who decides to seek public office or even if our beloved Panthers win. Instead, we are shackled to the stubborn facts and we have to stop at nothing until we bring you the rest of the story.
As President Harry Truman was making a speech in 1948, a supporter yelled out “Give ‘em Hell, Harry!” Truman replied, “I don’t give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it’s Hell.”
Newspapers can give them hell, but we cannot become political obstructionists or vigilantes. When that line is crossed and the newspaper declares it has “skin in the game,” its voice in the community is compromised.