Adversaries Always: Legislators and Reporters See Their Own as Ethical. but Neither Profession Thinks Too Highly of the Morals of the Other

Article excerpt

Why didn't the legislature pass the budget on time?"

1. Because democracy is a messy process. We all hold our values dearly and want what's best for our constituents."

2. Because we spent too much time bickering and being stubborn instead of coming to a consensus."

Which is the honest answer? Either, depending on who you are. In a room of 50 reporters, all but a few preferred the second response. The one about bickering was the "real" answer, they said.

But when the audience was 25 legislative staffers this winter, their choice was clear: Democracy is messy.

Surprised? Probably not.

It's no secret that legislators and their staff don't see the world through the same lens reporters do. A recent NCSL survey quantifies some gut feelings about the essential, but not always easy interactions between reporters and state legislators.

"It's a parasitic relationship," says Pennsylvania Representative Frank LaGrotta, a former sports reporter for USA Today. "Each person in the relationship has a need that the other person can fill. For the reporter, the need is information. And for the legislator, the need is free publicity .... We each have a job to do."

Conducted last summer, NCSL's online survey asked reporters and legislators to rate the truth of statements about themselves and members of the other profession on a five-point scale from "strongly disagree" to "strongly agree." One hundred journalists and 60 legislators responded. Though the poll was not scientific, it might be the first to measure this complex interplay.

Results show that members of both professions question the others' ethics. Reporters question legislators' honesty and understanding of how the media operates. And legislators question reporters' coverage choices and objectivity.

WHO'S MORE ETHICAL?

Both legislators and reporters see their own as generally ethical. But neither profession has overwhelming confidence in the morals of the other. A full 78 percent of both legislators and reporters agree or strongly agree that their profession is ethical. But only 54 percent of legislators say reporters are ethical, and 57 percent of reporters say the same about legislators.

Texas Senator Jeff Wentworth says these numbers show nothing more than natural wariness. "Human nature is perverse," he says. "We can be suspicious and cynical in our view of professions that are in close proximity to our own."

These numbers may also be a function of fundamental differences in how each occupation sees the English language. "Ethical" reporters pass up freebies from the people they cover. In many states "ethical" legislators can accept gifts as long as they disclose the sources.

"If you're going to be serving for altruistic purposes, do you need someone to give you a ticket to the ball game to do your job?" asks Bob Priddy, news director of the Missourinet, a statewide radio network that reaches about 65 stations. Priddy says members of the public raise an eyebrow when they see legislators receive special treatment, even though lawmakers often say they can't be bought. Legislators should avoid even the appearance of a quid pro quo, reporters say. In many places, though, gifts are part of the local culture, and legislators say they want to avoid the appearance of being rude. "When you're an elected official people want to give you things that are generally of inconsequential value," Wentworth says. "Often, we're in an awkward position. Especially in the South, you don't want to be ungracious about it."

In Texas, legislators have to report gifts worth more than $50, and they can accept as many T-shirts, coffee mugs, baseball caps and paper weights as they please without listing

Nicole Casal Moore works with reporters and press secretaries for NCSL's Public Affairs program. She also tracks ethics laws for NCSL's Center for Ethics in Government. …