Magazine article The Masthead

Know Your Writers' Agendas and Disclose Them

Magazine article The Masthead

Know Your Writers' Agendas and Disclose Them

Article excerpt

Columnist Armstrong Williams touched off furious discussions about ethics in newsrooms across the country.

Tribune Media Services terminated his contract when it learned Williams was under contract with the Bush administration agency to promote its No Child Left Behind education law. USA Today reported Williams took two hundred forty thousand dollars to promote education reform on his TV and radio shows.

Editor & Publisher also reported that Williams also had discussed the law four times in 2004.

Journalists were near unanimous about this most fundamental violation of trust with readers--that the writers' allegiance is to the reader, not some hidden special interest.

But who is responsible for keeping that tacit promise? And how do you keep it?

Here are highlights of a discussion among the NCEW Ethics Committee members:

Always the editor is responsible for touching the ethical line with the writer, members say, whether that is an editor of a single newspaper's editorial page or of a syndicate. But even the most vigilant editor can be hoodwinked. Tribune Media Services was right to act decisively in the Williams case, which is egregious. Even if he agreed with Bush's education reform efforts, taking money to promote them compromised his credibility. Watch out! He says he'll be self-syndicating.

Tribune Media's immediate termination of Williams's contract was a strong statement of the syndicate's values.

Trained journalists ought to have a good grounding in how to avoid conflicts of interest, but some don't. …

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