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In the spirit of transparency, I share this memo sent to the newsroom staff earlier today:

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Our ethics board adopted this week a new policy governing gifts and conflicts of interest. After surveying other newspapers' policies, we adapted ours from one by the Kansas City Star.
 
All of this is in line with how we've, in general, operated for years. Ethics policies are intended to help you work as a professional journalist, not to trip you up. If you have questions about any of this, please consult with a supervisor, as a few of you already have this week: A reporter declined a source's offer to buy him lunch and split the bill. Our sports editor donated to the YMCA a basketball that we received, for some odd reason, with a press release.
 
And then came the great Girl Scout Cookie debate.
 
As Girl Scouts do in newsrooms across the country on the eve of their annual sale, the local troop dropped off Wednesday eight boxes of the yummy cookies. A reporter rightly asked what she should do with this donation in light of our new policy.
 
In general, minor donations of perishable items, such as cookies or flowers, are not of major concern. As the policy notes, "No staffer can be bought for a soft drink." I would add that no staffer can be bought for cookies or flowers.
 
We could eat the cookies, as many journalists do, but Photo Editor Frank Tilley and Local Editor Becky Cooper, both ethics board members, suggested a fun and perhaps more satisfying alternative: Auction off the cookies in the newsroom and donate the proceeds to a charity. The charity I suggest is Adopt-A-Pet in the name of Kevin Jordan.
 
I'll start the bidding at $5 for my personal favorite, Do-Si-Dos, and pledge to share the box with the rest of the newsroom (after I eat the first two). Helen will coordinate the auction, so place your bids with her. Along with Do-Si-Dos, we have a box of Thin Mints, Trefoils, All Abouts, sugar-free Chocolate Chip, Tagalongs, Lemon Chalet Cremes and Somoas.
 
Thanks for indulging me in this exercise in ethics. (Because of your generosity, perhaps the calories won't even count.)
 
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III. Victoria Advocate travel, gift and conflict of interest policy (adapted from the Kansas City Star)
 
TRAVEL

As a general rule, no editorial employee may accept free transportation or the payment of travel expenses. Those will be borne by the company. If the event is newsworthy, the newspaper should pay its own way.

Any exception requires the approval of the editor:

Staffers should not use their Advocate connections or credentials to solicit trips or special press rates or press fares from airlines or other transport from travel organizations, hotels, agencies or government. Corporate discounts available to staff members, as company employees, are acceptable.

If a reduced-fare trip or special travel arrangement is the only way to complete an assignment, as with military transport, staff members are to use common sense and discretion. The editor must be informed of the circumstance as soon as possible and will determine whether a conflict of interest exists. If so, it should be reported in the paper.

In the case of a political campaign, The Advocate should pay the equivalent airfare (most political campaigns charge first-class rates) for reporters to ride a charter plane. Sports reporters should make their own travel arrangements whenever possible. However, if the staff member and the sports editor determine it necessary to travel on a team charter, The Advocate will pay the team for the cost of transportation. Because of the news value derived from staying in the same hotel as a political candidate or sports team, it is permissible for reporters of the paper to accept the negotiated group rate for such a room.


GIFTS, HOSPITALITY

Employees should never accept cash, gifts or gratuities such as food, flowers, alcoholic beverages and so forth from an individual or organization with which a staff member has or might someday have professional dealings.

When returning an unsolicited gift is not practical (if it is perishable, for example) or when returning an insignificant gift would be awkward, it should be given to the recipient's supervisor for donation to charity. When the value of a gift exceeds $50, the reporter or supervisor should send a letter to the giver explaining the newspaper's policy and the disposition of the gift.

MEALS AND REFRESHMENTS: For a soft drink, coffee, etc., of nominal value, staffers should use their best judgment. No staffer can be bought for a soft drink. If you're developing a working relationship with a source, you might agree to pick up the tab one time and have the source pick it up the next time. It's a good practice to pass up meals at events you're covering (such as school board meetings) or, if refusing the meal is impractical or exceedingly impolite, make arrangements to pay for the meal later. On source lunches, insist on picking up the tab at the next meeting. In short, don't let yourself be wined and dined. Pay your own way.

BOOKS, CDs, SOFTWARE AND TAPES: A reviewer may keep items sent to The Advocate if a review is written but they remain the property of the newspaper. No items may be sold by a staff member. Materials not reviewed should be donated to charity but in rare situations items may be kept in the library or by the department for reference with approval of a supervisor. To avoid the appearance of impropriety, no employee should accept materials at home. Freelance writers should follow these guidelines.

PRESS EVENTS: As a rule, press hospitality events are better politely declined. (A hospitality event would be, for instance, a suite with open bar at a political convention sponsored by a liquor company.) However, if the event is likely to yield beneficial contacts or important background information, and not attending would put The Advocate at a disadvantage in gathering and reporting legitimate news, the staff member should estimate the value of the hospitality and offer to reimburse the host. If the host declines, staff members should send a like amount (at company expense) to a charity suggested by the host.

If a staffer accepts food at an event site in a press room or along a press row, he or she should maintain a running voucher (including the reason for the meal) and turn it in to the department head. The department head will assure the team or institution is reimbursed by the company.

FREE TICKETS: In no case will The Advocate or its employees accept free admittance to an event for the purpose of entertainment, unless The Advocate provides the tickets. Admittance of working news people to designated press facilities is permissible.

When editorial staffers need admittance to an event that does not issue press credentials, a ticket should be purchased.

In sports coverage, standing press credentials will be issued only to regular beat writers, the regular sports columnists, and the sports editor and assistant sports editors. Other transferable press credentials will be available for issuance per event by the department head. This will enable staff members, who deem it beneficial to the performance of their jobs, to attend various local sporting events on occasion with the approval of their supervisor. Persistent use of this privilege is discouraged.

 
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

If we expect readers to view us as credible,
then Advocate editorial employees must aggressively seek and fully report the truth while remaining independent and free from any legitimate suggestion that their independence has been compromised.

No policy can anticipate every conceivable conflict. But these guidelines should apply to all editorial employees, full and part-time, freelance or contract, and regardless of position, title, beat or personal circumstance.

Editorial employees should:
  • Avoid even the appearance of a conflict and immediately report to their supervisor anything that would allow a news source to call our impartiality into question. Editors should make news judgments solely on their merits and use diligence in determining when real conflicts exist.

  • Refrain from writing about, reporting on, photographing or making news judgments about any individual related to them by blood or marriage or with whom they have a close personal relationship. If the spouse, relative or close friend works for a business or institution, editorial employees may be barred from writing about that enterprise. Employees should make certain they disclose conflicts or potential conflicts to their supervisor.

    The importance of the position occupied by the family member or friend is another critical factor. It would be a conflict, for example, for a reporter to cover a city that employed a close relative as a department head or council member. But it might not be a conflict or a legitimate appearance of one for a reporter to cover a city that employed a close relative as a truck driver.

    Exceptions may be made only when editors agree, and only when the conflict is clearly disclosed in the story.

  • Be careful about choosing topics if they are reporters who also write columns. The timing of a column -- or its placement near a news story by the same author -- also should be weighed to avoid questions about the writer's objectivity. Those reporter/columnists also should exercise restraint if their credibility in news coverage could be compromised by expressing opinion. For example, a beat reporter may want to avoid editorializing on a controversial subject that is likely to be an area of continuing coverage. Analysis, however, is acceptable.

Advertising/news: Maintain a clear line between advertising and news. Business considerations should not influence news judgment. All editorial employees should alert their supervisors when advertisers and /or employees from the business side of the newspaper attempt to exert influence over their work. Editors shall exercise sole judgment over all editorial content, including special sections.

When news stories are not time-sensitive, attempt to avoid running stories on the same subject on the same day of an advertising special section. While this may be sometimes unavoidable, we must be sensitive to the appearance of advertisers buying news. Copy generated for advertising supplements, for example, should be produced independently of the newsroom staff.

Organizations: Staff members must refrain from reporting on or making news judgments about organizations with which they, or family members, have a significant involvement. However, nothing in these guidelines is meant to discourage them from volunteering their time for nonprofit charitable endeavors whose aim is to improve the community or help its neediest residents. Serving as an officer in a public relations, personnel or fund-raising position frequently creates a conflict. When in doubt about a relationship, staff members should ask themselves: Could they or the newspaper publicly disclose the situation without fear of embarrassment or legitimate criticism? Above all, when in doubt, disclose a conflict or the appearance of one to your editor.


MEMBERSHIPS

Editorial employees should not belong to organizations about which they must write or make editorial judgments. Membership in professional journalistic organizations and voluntary work for religious, cultural or social groups are acceptable. Staffers should avoid duties or activities involving fund-raising, personnel issues and public relations.

Should an employee be faced with the prospect of reporting or editing a story about an organization to which he or she belongs, or for which he or she volunteers time or money, he or she should inform a supervisor and may be asked to relinquish the assignment.

Free or reduced-rate memberships in private clubs or like organizations may not be accepted. If such a membership is necessary for coverage of a beat, the cost will be borne by the company.

POLITICAL INVOLVEMENT

Political involvement or holding public office shall be considered a conflict of interest for editorial employees. Staff members are encouraged, even urged, to exercise their franchise as citizens to discuss matters of public interest and to register and vote. However, because their profession requires stringent efforts against partiality and perceptions of bias, staff members should avoid political activity beyond that. Those who do not should be aware that their involvement might affect their duties at The Advocate. For example, marching in an abortion rally could preclude a reporter not only from covering that issue but perhaps other health-care issues as well.

Marching, picketing and active campaigning, including organizing or supervising petition drives, should be avoided. When there is doubt whether an outside activity is appropriate, staff members should bring the issue to the attention of their department heads.

FINANCIAL HOLDINGS

While we do not want to penalize staff members by suggesting that they not buy stock or make other investments, it is not enough to be honest. It is equally important that no one has grounds for even raising the suspicion that an employee misused a position with The Advocate.

Therefore, editorial employees:
  • Should not enter into a business relationship with a source.

  • Should not work on stories about enterprises in which they have a financial interest. Any newsroom staff member, including editors, photographers and page designers, with an investment in a business shall not make news decisions involving that business before first informing their supervisor.

  • Shall not trade on inside information. Moreover, unpublished information gathered by The Advocate may not be used by staff members to make investment decisions.

DEFINITION: "Inside information" constitutes corporate affairs that have not been made public. An insider is a person usually a director or officer (but extended legally to include reporters), with access to that information. Under Securities and Exchange Commission rules, insiders are prohibited from trading on their knowledge.

INFLUENCE

Newsroom employees shall not exploit their position at The Advocate for personal gain in any commercial transaction or to conduct personal business for themselves or anyone else.


PUBLIC EVENTS

Editorial staffers may participate in outside events run or co-sponsored by newsroom divisions as long as those events meet ethics code criteria.

Because these events often involve commercial partners, newsroom participation must be structured similarly to the newspaper it self which recognizes a clear line between advertising (and other forms of revenue generation) and the independent editorial roles of news gatherer and information provider. Consider such an event a "living newspaper." with all of its ethical implications.

Kinds of events:

Generally staff members can participate in these kinds of company-sponsored public events:
  • Not-for-profit or charitable events that involve no commercial sponsors provided the staffer does not routinely cover the charity involved.
  • Not-for-profit or charitable events that include commercial sponsors, but the purpose of the commercial sponsorship is to offset the event's expenses or to help a charity. Again, staffers who routinely cover the sponsor or any charity involved should not participate.
  • For-profit events that involve commercial sponsors, but the primary content of these events is organized controlled and presented by members of the editorial department as an extension of the newsroom mission to be objective providers of information. Sponsors can provide their own content at an event. but it must be proportionally smaller than that provided by members of the editorial department and clearly identified as advertising-sponsored information.

The newsroom should have no role in soliciting commercial sponsors.

Staff members organizing such events should make clear to readers and attendees - in programs signage and promotional materials -- that there is a separation between the editorial content of the event and any information provided by a commercial sponsor.

Staff members are allowed to work as ticket-takers or in other event-related jobs as long as the newsroom controls the event. Staff members should not do such jobs at non-newsroom sponsored events.

Staff members should not participate in for-profit events that involve commercial sponsors in which the sponsors control the primary content of the presentation. However if there is an exhibition floor, the newsroom can participate in a Victoria Advocate booth or other appropriately segmented area.

Coverage of events:

Staffers should use sound reasonable news judgment in assessing how much coverage The Advocate should give a company-produced event. News stories about events sponsored by The Advocate also must reflect the newspaper's involvement if The Advocate is considered a lead or main sponsor. If the newspaper is among many sponsors, stories need not reflect The Advocate's role.

Newsroom organizers of public events must submit a coverage plan to the editor for approval. Such a proposal should detail anticipated advance and spot coverage. Event organizers should use house advertisements or advertising special sections rather than news space to provide extensive details about an event.