Columnists Talk Ethics at Confab

By: Dave Astor Many newspapers have codes of ethics, but the ones David Chartrand has seen have "no language about columnists."

That can mean columnists "know they've gone too far only when they get in trouble," said Chartrand, the self-syndicated and Universal Press Syndicate writer speaking during a Saturday ethics session at the National Society of Newspaper Columnists conference (NSNC).

"Ethical guidelines are helpful," but a columnist's own moral compass is the key to avoiding unethical behavior, added another self-syndicated panelist, former NSNC president Suzette Martinez Standring.

Basic ethics for columnists, of course, include being factual and fair even when giving an opinion (although there can be somewhat different ground rules for columnists using humor and satire). And columnists at a number of papers have the leeway to advocate for causes -- a leeway reporters usually don't have in their stories.

Some recent ethical no-nos by a few columnists? "Faking sources, making up events, masking paid-for opinions as your own, and writing about events before they happen," said Standring.

There are also gray areas when it comes to ethics. Philadelphia Daily News gossip columnist Dan Gross noted that he might keep an unsolicited T-shirt from a musician he's already written about often, but definitely not keep more expensive merchandise from a person or company seeking coverage for the first time.

"What I want is information, not stuff," added Gross.

Ernesto Portillo Jr. of The Arizona Daily Star in Tucson said from the audience that he's been out in the desert writing about undocumented people trying to enter the U.S., and -- if he felt the situation required it -- would offer water or other humanitarian help to a thirsty or scared person even though a journalist supposedly shouldn't do that.

The NSNC -- which approved a code of conduct several years ago -- recently had an ethical debate of its own when it discussed whether to accept things like ads for its 2007 conference publication, noted panelist Mike Argento, the NSNC president and York (Pa.) Daily Record columnist. But conference host Stu Bykofsky of the Philadelphia Daily News argued successfully that columnists work for newspapers that accept ads.

Moderating the ethics panel was NBC Nightly News executive Albert Oetgen, a former newspaper reporter and editor.


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