Conflict resolution: Keeping it fair in the paper

[Originally published in the Rutland County Express on 10/14/10]

Express Staff Working for the press, conflicts of interest often arise. In a small town, those conflicts are myriad and, for the most part, common knowledge. My time with the “Rutland Herald” has been an exercise in avoiding potential conflicts of interest, and, when unavoidable, doing the responsible thing and fully disclosing any connection I may have to the story.

In the mainstream, big league media, you will occasionally hear the lines, “in the interest of full-disclosure” preceding or following news stories where the media outlet is owned or connected to a story. For example an MSNBC report on GE, should include the disclosure that GE owns NBC Universal (for the time being).

More often, however, these connections can be irresponsibly glossed over when that disclosure does not fit with the narrative the media outlet is attempting to create.

Take for example, Fox News’ curious failure to disclose the fact that News Corp’s chief stakeholder next to Rupert Murdoch is the same Saudi prince who is funding the Park51 Islamic center that Fox has been so vehemently opposed to in recent weeks.

Or, on a lesser, more conspiratorial note, NPR’s shameless promotion of “Mad Men” and anything David Sedaris says or does raises similar issues. (So maybe it’s not the same at all, but I’m beginning to think Terry Gross gets a dollar every time she makes a Don Draper reference.)

For me, Rutland is a minefield of conflicts. My family owns a business downtown; I work for a local nonprofit, which works closely with a number of other nonprofits; and I sit on several boards and committees.

When I first started writing and editing a little over a year ago, I had to adjust to a world where objectivity and fairness ruled.

Prior to this, my only work for the paper had been as an occasional commentator on the oped page. Commentators are allowed to be subjective — to share their opinions openly without having to worry that it might be construed as a conflict of interest (although, after certain columns were published, I did hesitate before starting my car).

Like I said, it’s a minefield out there.

However, I take my job seriously, and I don’t want to jeopardize my credibility by being sloppy or careless.

Of course, that’s not just me. It’s an ethic that runs throughout the entire “Rutland Herald” organization. The specter of potential conflict looms large and is treated with respect right down the line.

In recent weeks, you may have noticed the many first-grade photos we have been running in this paper. Our plan is to print a photo of every first grade class in Rutland County. It’s a nice back-to-school feature that gets a great response – kids love seeing themselves in the paper.

However, such a sweeping project means that potential conflicts will arise. As we began gathering photos, Randal Smathers, the “Herald’s” editor-in-chief, called me into his office to give me some advice on how to proceed with the photos.

With over 60 full- and part-time employees we were bound to have someone with a connection to a student or a teacher. Our goal was to avoid running any of those people on the cover, thus, giving our readers the perception that we are playing favorites.

Randal wanted me to be particularly cautious about one of his sons, who is a first-grader in the Rutland Public School system. He warned me that, despite his child’s immense adorableness, I should resist the urge to put him on the cover.

Currently, we are more than halfway through our cache of first-grade photos, and to our knowledge, we’ve only had one minor slip. In our second week, one of the teachers in the back row of the cover photo is Matt Jensen, the son of our longtime outdoors editor, Dennis Jensen.

That one definitely slipped past us.

Still, in the spectrum of journalistic snafus, I would say this probably falls somewhere between running the same horoscope two days in a row and leaving “Family Circus” off the comics page — would anybody even notice?

As we wrap up this year’s first-grade photo feature, it looks like we’ve got clear sailing. The Rutland Schools are out of the way, and as we spiral out into the far reaches of Rutland County, our chances of running a familiar face on the cover is less likely, though, not impossible – this is Rutland after all.

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