Gun-Ad Ban Hints at New Media Standards ; Decision by Two Tucson, Ariz., Newspapers Treads a Line between Ethics and Censorship

Article excerpt

When this city's two daily newspapers recently banned classified ads for private gun sales, the response was fast and unforgiving.

"Be a newspaper, not a police officer!" said one letter to the editor. Another called the policy hypocritical. "Since automobiles kill many more people than guns, are you also going to reject classified ads from individuals trying to sell their automobiles...?"

The Arizona Daily Star and Tucson Citizen are not the only papers to get letters like these. Eleven others around the US also exclude such ads.

The financial costs can be significant - The Seattle Times reportedly loses as much as $400,000 a year for refusing to publish certain ads. Still, as the traditional "firewall" between editorial content and advertising crumbles, the move is becoming a more accepted way of keeping values consistent throughout the paper, media experts say.

"The newspapers leave the impression that 'We just don't do this,' " says Jay Black, a media-ethics professor at the University of South Florida in Tampa, comparing the practice to banning ads for adult bookstores. "Their editorial position is supposed to be the voice of the paper."

Indeed, while the decision costs both Tucson papers advertising and subscription revenues - a combined $20,000 this year, according to one insider - the publishers call it a moral duty.

"The publishers felt that our advertising policies needed to be in alignment with policies that they've encouraged on our editorial pages," says Jim Rowley, vice president for the Tucson papers' shared marketing department. "They favor background checks for firearm purchases."

Backdoor censorship?

For many gun proponents, however, the move amounts to backdoor censorship, and unfairly targets a legal practice.

"Realistically, this will have no effect whatsoever on criminal access to firearms," says Jim Manown, a spokesman for the National Rifle Association. "Such an action condemns the 99 percent of law- abiding gun owners."

"If the nation's newspapers want to make an editorial comment regarding gun ownership," he adds, "they have a forum to do that on their editorial pages."

But journalism and law experts say the bans are not unconstitutional. "A news operation has the right to make these kinds of decisions," says Mr. Black, who is also the former chair of the National Society of Professional Journalists' Ethics Committee. …