By: Brian Orloff
Add the Department of Homeland Security to the list of federal agencies seeking to pay or employ journalists. Unlike the Department of Education or the Department of Health and Human Services, the DHS is not paying journalists to shill for its programs to a general readership, but, still, journalism ethicists worry about the new program.
Last week, the department placed an advertisement on Journalismjobs.com, an employment Web site, requesting reporters to participate in TOPOFF 3, a Congress-directed, simulated terrorist-attack exercise. The DHS sought to hire journalists at “competitive” rates to write and report on events only for exercise participants, The Hill newspaper reported.
The posting has since been removed because the department received sufficient applications, a DHS spokesman said.
While the posting clearly stipulated that applicants must not be currently employed by a “real news organization,” and must sign a nondisclosure agreement and refrain from reporting on the events elsewhere, some ethicists say that participants who later return to traditional journalism careers might have difficulty maintaining their credibility and integrity.
“It’s always a bit of a struggle on that front,” said Aly Colon of the Poynter Institute. “It is very possible that someone who does something now may, in the future, find themselves back in the traditional employment of a news organization. Then, at that time, either they’ll have to figure out how to avoid coverage of that particular organization, or, if they do, they’ll have to run the risk that people might have some questions about their ability to do so in an impartial way — even if they could.
“And it’s possible maybe that they could, but that perception might cloud somebody’s view of the credibility of their report.”
It is not uncommon for reporters to participate in government exercises. Some defense reporters will observe war games to better master their beat. But they aren’t paid by the government.
In this case, the DHS says real journalists are essential to the exercise by better explaining how the media would cover and respond to a potential terrorist attack. Journalists are expected to start around March 14, according to Ogilvy Public Relations, the firm hired to employ journalists. For their work, which will take three to four weeks, they will receive “competitive pay rates,” according to the posting.
“Journalists, in general, just want to be very vigilant about protecting their integrity and making sure that whatever they’re involved in doesn’t raise some red flags from people who may wonder where their allegiances lie,” Colon said. “There’s always a potential for that kind of concern.”