The student journalist's dilemma

Speech team captain, campaign volunteer, student government president,newspaper editor … can ambitious college student journalists handle it all?And with concerns over impartiality and conflicts of interest filling newsrooms,should they be allowed to?

Conflicts of interest can pop up frequently in the staff offices of studentnewspapers, where journalism might be considered a club activity more than aprofession. Some colleges and universities have developed their own conflict ofinterest policies and codes of ethics to help student journalists adjust toprofessional guidelines and avoid conflicts of interest within theirpublications.

When student journalists don’t adhere to these policies and engage inconflicts of interest between their reporting and outside interests andactivities, their college journalism careers can be endangered.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalistsshould “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and”remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrityor damage credibility.” According to SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman AndySchotz, this guideline means different things to different newsorganizations.

“There are different degrees of how you see that conflict,”Schotz said. “Two people can come up with a different answer. Itdoesn’t mean that one person is right and one person iswrong.”

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said thenature of the news organization makes a difference when determining how seriousconflicts of interest are. If the publication openly espouses a politicalagenda, conflicts of interest might not be an issue. “If it has anideological agenda made clear from the start, it may be less of aconcern,” LoMonte said.

Policies on avoiding conflicts of interest may differ between newsorganizations, but no matter how lax these policies may be, the issue ofconflicts of interest is important for journalists to consider when reporting,Schotz said.

“It’s certainly a question to ask when you are reporting andyou have some type of other involvement,” Schotz said. “[Theguidelines are] to at least get you to ask the question, ‘What are thepossible conflicts here and how can I avoid them or minimize them?'”

“It’s really a matter of judgment and professionalism,”LoMonte said. “The publication just has to come up with really clearstandards.”

Political conflicts within opinions pages

In March 2009, the importanceof having a clear conflict of interest policy became evident for members of theRecorder, Central Connecticut State University’s student newspaper.

The Recorder ran into a problem with political conflicts ofinterests of a newspaper editor. Then-Opinions Editor Marissa Blaszko was firedfor what she claims were her socialist political views. But Editor-in-ChiefMelissa Traynor said it was not Blaszko’s political views but the actionsshe took on her views that made her uncomfortable with Blaszko’s positionas opinions editor.

“Their argument was that it was the activity, my argument was that itwas the politics,” Blaszko said.

Blaszko had been the opinions editor for more than a semester at the timeof her termination. As the semester had progressed, she became increasinglypolitically active, especially with the campus-based organization Youth forSocialist Action, and attended demonstrations and political rallies for thisorganization.

A major concern for Traynor came when Blaszko signed her name as theopinions editor for the Recorder on political petitions.”No oneon the Recorder [is] allowed to sign petitions or anything in a politicalnature or volunteer their time or effort or give their opinion as arepresentative of the Recorder,” Traynor said.

Blaszko said she didn’t think her political beliefs conflicted withher abilities as opinions editor.

“I don’t think there was a conflict of interest at all becauseeverybody has biases, whether they’re open about them or not,”Blaszko said. “So just from a theoretical perspective, my biases are maybemore apparent than others, but the writing would have been thesame.”

The Recorder‘s code of ethics states: “The newspaperdoes not have an official political stance, so political bias should be keptwithin the appropriate pages dedicated to commentary.” It also says”editors of the Recorder shall not participate in any form ofstudent, local or national government and should be free of any ties to anypolitical organization, campus-based or otherwise.” So what can theopinions editor do?

“Within our opinion pages, if you’re a staff writer,you’re allowed to express your political opinions within theRecorder and if you’re an editor you’re also allowed to dothat,” Traynor said. She explained that the Recorder editorialstaff looks for local content relevant to campus life, so they tend to not runarticles about issues not related to the campus.

Blaszko said she thinks having a political opinion can improve andstrengthen articles.

“If you look at a lot of news anchors, they clearly have anunderstanding of current events, because that’s their job, they need toknow these things,” Blaszko said. “Whereas you get somebody whodoesn’t know their politics or doesn’t disclose their politics,you’re going to get articles that aren’t very sophisticated ordon’t have a lot of analysis or historical perspective.”

Code of conduct for campaigns: Just say no

Student journalists at theJambar, Youngstown State University’s student newspaper, have apolicy that directs them to avoid conflicts of interest both on and off campus.

Staff reporters are not allowed to write about clubs and activities withwhich they are involved, and editors who are involved with a club do not makeeditorial decisions about articles concerning the club. They instead pass thearticles on to an editor without ties to the club.

Off-campus conflicts of interest, specifically political conflicts ofinterest, became an issue during the Obama campaign last fall, Jambaradviser Mary Beth Earnheardt said.

“Because the campaign really tapped into young college students, wehad issues with staff members being volunteers and really campaigning,”Earnheardt said.

According to Earnheardt, when an arts and entertainment editor, Liz Boon,appeared in a campaign poster on campus, the editor-in-chief of theJambar asked the editor to refrain from campaigning for a candidate. Thearts and entertainment editor instead gave up her position with the paper infavor of her work with the campaign.

“As far as I’m concerned, that’s the rightoutcome,” Earnheardt said. “If you want to be a member of theworking press — which all student journalists are — then you abide bythe professional codes and behaviors.” Earnheardt said she, too, followsthe Jambar conflict of interest policy.

She does not publish her political affiliation or join political groups onsocial networking sites like Facebook, and she asks her students to do the same.Earnheardt said she also encourages her students to look at the SPJ code ofethics for guidelines on behavior and conflicts of interest.

“[The student journalists] don’t look at it as being a memberof a club,” Earnheardt wrote. “They see it as their profession andthey take it seriously.”

Politics and social media: To tweet or not to tweet

The conflict ofinterest policy for the Daily Tar Heel, the University of NorthCarolina’s student newspaper, covers political involvement of staff andeditors and is especially strict regarding involvement with student government,said Editor-in-Chief Andrew Dunn.

“The one thing that we’re hard and fast on and there’s noflexibility with is the rule that you can’t be in student government andon the Daily Tar Heel staff,” Dunn said. This rule has beenenforced since 1993, when the Daily Tar Heel became independent from theUniversity of North Carolina after the paper stopped taking student fees forfunding.

Dunn said one of the most common infractions of the conflict of interestpolicy comes when Daily Tar Heel staff members sign petitions to putcandidates on the student government elections ballot.

“Inevitably, no matter how many times we tell people they can’t[sign one of these petitions], we have a few people who sign it,” Dunnsaid. Staff members who sign these petitions are suspended from their work onthe Daily Tar Heel for the remainder of the semester. They are permittedto return to work on the paper the following semester.

The Daily Tar Heel‘s conflict of interest policy is a work inprogress. The editor-in-chief of the paper updates its code of ethics andconflicts of interest policy every summer to make sure the guidelines outlinedin the codes are current and relevant. This summer, Dunn added a social mediapolicy to deal with the explosion in popularity of sites like Twitter.

“We discovered over the summer that people were tweeting a lot aboutthe Daily Tar Heel, and so we wanted to come up with some sort ofpolicy,” Dunn said.

Dunn said he tried to base the Daily Tar Heel’s social mediapolicy on guidelines he had seen for large, mainstream newspapers like theWall Street Journal and the New York Times, but ultimately, hesaid, they had to make their own policy to suit the needs of student reporters.

“We wanted to come up with some sort of policy and we didn’tlike the ones that other newspapers had. … We wanted to draft our own versionfor a college newspaper,” Dunn said. “But I haven’t seen thesocial media policy at any other campus newspaper yet.”

The Daily Tar Heel‘s social media policy deals with issueslike online representation as a Daily Tar Heel reporter and”friending” sources on Web sites like Facebook. It bans reportersfrom revealing political affiliations or preferences on profiles or in statusupdates.

Opinions editors, however, are allowed to express their politicalviewpoints since, according to Dunn, they have already stated their biases intheir columns in the paper.

Student journalism: Why so serious

Sometimes students must decide howseriously they want to represent the role of a journalist.

“There’s kind of this idea on campus where people go to schooland they join clubs and student activities because they kind of just want tohang out and do whatever they want to do, and they don’t really treat itas though they are preparing to leave college,” the Recorder’sTraynor said. “A lot of people have been making the argument thatthe newspaper is almost too realistic or real-world oriented. There’s alot of people who think that if you’re a student you don’t have tobe professional about certain things, whereas we take this veryseriously.”

The Daily Tar Heel‘s Dunn said his staff and editors act likea professional newspaper, and their sources treat them like a professionalnewspaper.

“We still have challenges because we’re a student newspaper andpeople have class, so it’s not a full-time job for a lot of people, but wetake ourselves seriously and I think it’s really helped us in the longrun,” Dunn said.

Earnheardt said conflicts of interest and codes of ethics should be takenjust as seriously for journalism students as working journalists. “Wetake our profession seriously,” Earnheardt said.

“I don’t think that anyone would question law students or medstudents who abide by professional codes of ethics and I don’t see whyit’s okay to question journalism students.”