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News / Clark County News

Press Talk: The ethics of getting to know you

By Lou Brancaccio, Columbian Editor
Published: April 12, 2016, 6:10am

had wanted to put together a bocce ball game for some time, and as the weather began breaking beautiful, I saw my opportunity.

So last Friday, my wife, Maley, and I threw together a Facebook invitation for the next day.

Here’s what the invitation said:

“Last-minute get-together to celebrate … everyone.”

About 30 folks showed up — I would say four or five of them were elected officials — and it’s fair to say we had a good time. I lost at bocce, people brought some great food, and I cooked homemade pizza.

No one was hiding anything. Lots of us posted photos on Facebook. After about three hours, our guests headed home.

Shortly after, a few folks who saw the photos took to social media to question whether I should have had any elected officials at the party.

Good question! So, let’s examine.

Here’s the goal: Journalists should not be adversely influenced by their relationships with community members.

I couldn’t agree more.

But here’s another goal: Journalists should get to know their community, get to know those who are leaders in the community.

And I couldn’t agree more again.

Now, when you look at those goals, one might say it would be pretty difficult to accomplish both.

I would respectfully disagree.

One simply needs to find the middle ground.

And it’s important to note at this point that we’re dealing with news judgment, not news science.

If you put 100 newspaper types in a room and asked their thoughts about associating with community members, their answers likely would look like a bell curve.

I’ve heard of folks at newspapers who have run for elective office and others who won’t even register to vote.

But most of us, as noted, are looking for the middle ground.

If you’re like me, you have to figure out how to better know the community and keep your ethics intact. And how does one accomplish that?

Can you get to know community leaders by just attending meetings or reading The Columbian? Not very well. Journalists — including me — have to get away from their desks and get out there.

Going to coffee or lunch with an elected official or a business person or community leader is a good idea.

And I think having a party where community leaders are invited — for me — also is a good idea.

Here’s the key, from my perspective: It’s not wrong if you associate with elected officials. It would only be wrong if you let that association adversely impact your decision-making.

I associate with a bunch of community leaders and elected officials at many community events. Saturday, for example, Maley and I will be going to a Share fundraising dinner. And guess who will be at that event? Many of the people I was playing bocce with at my house. Will I run into a few of them and have conversations? Absolutely.

Now, a few folks are saying, “Well, maybe that’s OK at an event, but not at your house.” But why the distinction? The ethical issue is not where you associate with people, but if that association adversely impacts your decision-making.

So you either buy into the idea that getting to know any elected official is bad for a journalist or you buy the idea that it’s OK to get to know the decision-makers as long as you’re not adversely influenced. Obviously, I believe the latter, because the alternative results in shutting ourselves off from the community.

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We have a saying at The Columbian: Community Begins Here. That means we welcome diverse views so we can have diverse conversations about our community.

And in a very real way, I kept Community Begins Here in mind when I invited folks to play bocce ball.

I had conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, elected officials and regular folks like you and me. Oh, and most of the elected officials there? The Columbian didn’t editorially endorse them at one point or another.

I would also argue that much good came out of my party. Connections among those there were made that otherwise might not have been made.

As my party notice said, “Celebrate Everyone.” So I certainly celebrate those who disagree with me on this. And thank goodness, you can come to The Columbian’s website to discuss it.

Columbian Editor