Ethics Panelists at ASNE Discuss Albom, Kelley, Blair

By: Andrew Ackerman It looked hard for John Miller, public editor of the Detroit Free Press, to keep from squirming while in the hot seat at a panel discussion on media ethics at the American Society of Newspaper Editors' (ASNE) annual convention in Washington, D.C.

He made it clear that it is no picnic being a paper's spokesman during a full-blown ethical crises.

Since his paper began an investigation into its superstar columnist Mitch Albom last week, Miller said he's fielded hundreds of emails from readers. They are at times critical of the paper and of Albom, who earlier this month filed a column the day before a Michigan State basketball game in which he falsely reported that two former players from the team attended the game.

Though many Free Press readers told him they think Albom's transgression is minor, Miller said Albom's popular radio show (he's also a bestselling author) has made him a magnet for protest. A writer who is also a radio personality brings an entirely new element to handling controversies.

"It has morphed from being a free press issue to being a radio personality and a question of what he says and does on his radio show," Miller said. "The tenor has changed."

Miller spoke with four other editors at a panel titled "The Vigilant Editor," which began as an overview of the most recent ethics scandals in journalism and quickly evolved into a tutorial on how editors can best act when crises hit their papers.

The panel was moderated by Karen Dunlap, president of the Poynter Institute, and also included David Boardman, managing editor of The Seattle Times; Bill Kovach, chairman of the Committee of Concerned Journalists; Allan Siegal, assistant managing editor of The New York Times, and Don Wycliff, public editor of the Chicago Tribune.

Boardman observed that after his paper uncovered serial plagiarism last year by its 31-year veteran columnist Stephen Dunphy, a handful of writers stepped forward to tell him that they knew Dunphy had plagiarized their work, as well. But they had not known that editors frown on plagiarism.

"They just said that that's how they thought your business worked," Boardman said.

Siegal reported that the New York Times has had a "remarkable transformation" since the paper adopted reforms outlined by a committee he chaired following the Jayson Blair scandal of 2003. They include several new posts at the paper, including a public editor, new
training, and annual performance reviews of staff by their superiors.

"Some of the stuff is really working," Siegal said. "We were blessed with a publisher who was willing to add a few staff positions to make this stuff happen. It hasn't been easy for the company to do, because we too feel the pinch of the economy."

Despite the numerous amount of recent high-profile scandals, Wycliff said that the industry is a lot cleaner than when he first entered journalism in the 1970s.

"There was a far more lax attitude with things like how we handled sources and readers on the telephone, accepting gifts, things like that," Wycliff said. "It was very common. Not anymore."

Kovach said the most important lesson he has learned is that newspapers must be as transparent as possible. That suggested editors have to explain problems to their readers, correct them and apologize. "We have to measure up to our own standards," he said. "We have to be as dependable, as honest and as transparent as we expect everyone else to be."

He dwelled on his experience a year ago as part of an outside panel that looked into the fictional reporting of USA Today's star foreign correspondent, Jack Kelley, which ultimately led to the resignation of the paper's editor, Karen Jurgensen.

Kovach said he was appalled at the lack of communications between the various "silos" of the paper. He said one could walk through the newsroom an entire day and never bump into an editor, and also criticized a lack of communication between the editorial and business sides of the newspaper.

"I was amazed to find that inside what then and maybe still is arguably the most diverse staff in the country and a staff that daily communicates with more people than any other newspaper, the communication horizontally and vertically was almost non-existent," Kovach said. "The idea that a Jack Kelley could blossom or could grow was not hard to understand once you started taking it apart."


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