By Jerry Dunklee | March 21st, 2007
A reporter for a local paper whispers in my ear, “Did you hear about the deal with the photog?” I hadn’t so the reporter filled me in. As a member of the SPJ ethics committee it’s not rare for journalists to whisper in my ear, call or e-mail me about ethics issues.
Here is the story: A reporter was covering the local school system and shows up at an event at one of the schools. There he/she finds a photographer for the paper taking pictures. The reporter is surprised because no newspaper photo coverage had been ordered for the event. “Hey, I didn’t know they were staffing this.” the reporter said. The photog said, “They’re not. I’m taking shots for the school.” Hmmmm? thought the reporter.
It turned out the photog had a separate contract with the schools to take pictures for their newsletters and website.
The story got around and the newspaper, to their credit, asked the shooter to end the relationship with the school system.
If you’re a serious journalist, it’s clear that a private deal with an entity the journalism organization is covering is a conflict of interest. Journalists, obviously, should not be taking money from newsmakers to take photos, write press releases, plan strategy or anything else.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear about this: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” …“Shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”
Other codes, including the National Press Photographers Association code, make similar points.
There are significant financial pressures on many journalists. Often pay, particularly for early career journalists, is poor and the rent has to be paid, children fed, and car payments made. But we should be very careful about what we do for extra money or even on a volunteer basis. It’s probably okay for a photographer to do wedding photos, portraits or art. It clearly not okay to be employed by a public or private organization about which the journalist might be called upon to write stories or take pictures. At the end, the principal thing we offer the public is our creditability. We need to guard that jealously.
News organizations should make it clear in their own in-house codes that such practices are not permissible. They should make sure all employees are reminded of potential conflicts of interest on a regular basis.
Jerry Dunklee is a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee and professor of journalism at Southern Connecticut State University