Funny how isolated events come together.
Event #1: A week ago, my friend Buffy Andrews at the York Daily Record asked Twitter for thoughts on a colleague’s ethical question. He was covering a story and a source — a Marine — gave him a hat or what he called a “cover.” Because journalists don’t like to take anything for free — it looks bad – the journalist politely refused. The Marine insisted. By accepting, did he cross an ethical line?
I responded with two tweets: “No dilemma. Keep it. We worry about too much.” And: ”Readers don’t understand our obsession with small bore ethics when we have large bore problems.” Steve Buttry describes the situation - and my position – fully.
Event #2: Last week, my mass communications class discussed the principles of journalism. I had presented the first five articulated by Rosenthiel and Kovach.
No. 4: “Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.”
No. 5: “It must serve as an independent monitor of power.”
Event #3: Yesterday, NBC17 reporter Kim Genardo tweeted that she had accepted a job as Gov. Pat McCrory’s communications director. As Jim Romenesko points out, 10 days earlier, she was promoting her one-on-one interview with the governor. And just three days ago, she was still covering the governor – misspelling his name in a tweet — in her reporting job.
I suppose it is possible that Genardo didn’t know on Wednesday that she was a candidate to work for the governor. After all, the vetting process for job candidates in the new administration has been bumpy. But it seems unlikely to me. Genardo responded to questions raised about the possible conflict this way, as reported at Romenesko’s site:
“I covered both of Gov McCrory’s campaigns and NEVER spoke to him or asked about employment. I have integrity. The outgoing comm director recommended me for the job and I seized the opportunity.”
It raises as many questions as it doesn’t answer, including Gov. McCrory didn’t interview his own communications director?
Anyway, back to the point: there are small bore ethical issues that journalists tend to struggle with and the public doesn’t understand or value: “I must pay for all of my meals with sources.” “I cannot accept that gift, even though its value is less than $10 and I will insult you by spurning it.”
And there are large bore ethical issues that the public understands quite well. Independence from those we cover is one. Rosenthiel and Kovach explain it clearly.
“Journalism has an unusual capacity to serve as watchdog over those whose power and position most affect citizens. The Founders recognized this to be a rampart against despotism when they ensured an independent press; courts have affirmed it; citizens rely on it. As journalists, we have an obligation to protect this watchdog freedom by not demeaning it in frivolous use or exploiting it for commercial gain.”
How can you blame NBC17 viewers who might think that Genardo’s coverage of the governor was influenced by her interest in working for the governor? (It doesn’t matter if happened that way. It’s how it appears.) Genardo hasn’t yet explained the sequence of events of how she went from reporter covering the governor to spokeswoman working for the governor. (Or at least, I haven’t found it.) I suspect that’ll be among the first questions she’s asked in her new job.