Would you publish a news story that would anger a dear friend?

May 5, 2014

When you live in a city the size of Victoria or the smaller towns surrounding it, conflicts of interest arise almost as soon as you walk out the door to pick up your morning paper.

This is true regardless of your occupation, but the issue matters a great deal to journalists, who value the principle of acting independently. We aim to seek truth and report it without fear or favor.

This is a topic our ethics board has discussed several times since it was formed seven years ago, but it's one worth reviewing regularly. There's no avoiding every possible conflict of interest unless you live in a bubble.

I brought the issue before our ethics board at last month's meeting because the University of Houston-Victoria has been much in the news recently. Of course, it's common knowledge my wife, Paula, is the marketing and communications director at UHV. We do our best to keep our professional lives separate. For example, she doesn't discuss with me university issues that could be controversial. That can be frustrating at times for a journalist, but I also recognize this is the best way to handle the situation. Fortunately, we have many other sources in the community for what’s happening at most institutions, including UHV, around the Crossroads. Likewise, she never asks me for any favors of special coverage regarding the university.

Of course, possible conflicts of interest arise in many other ways. At one point, our ethics board talked about trying to compile a list of all the various organizations our employees are involved in. We never pursued that idea because the list seemed daunting when you start including school, church and other volunteer activities. The Advocate's family owners, who stretch back three generations at the newspaper, place a high value on community involvement.

In the spirit of transparency, I'll list a few of my other biggest conflicts:

 Paula also is the elected president this year of the Victoria Bach Festival.

 I serve on the board of directors of the VISD Education Foundation.

 I serve on the executive committee of the board of the Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas.

 I serve on the national Associated Press Media Editors board.

 Our son is a junior at Victoria West on the soccer team. He also writes for the student paper. Paula and I volunteer on the soccer booster club.

 Our daughter is a freshman journalism major at the University of Texas who writes for the Daily Texan. She used to be a West tennis player and band member.

This list just scratches the surface. You can hardly go out the door in Victoria -- and definitely not to HEB -- without running into someone you know. That means we inevitably will be writing about a friend or neighbor. As a result, we are much more accountable for what we publish than journalists working in larger cities. That’s a positive. After all, one of the four pillars of the Society of Professional Journalists' code of ethics is be accountable. A second is minimize harm. Most community journalists are much more in tune with these pillars than their big-city cousins.

It's a paradox that these two pillars can feel at odds sometimes with the other two mentioned above: Act independently; and seek truth and report it. I can confidently and proudly say Advocate journalists act independently and seek truth with all of their news coverage, but we must just as quickly acknowledge we're all human and don't hit this high bar every day.

Even when we think we're doing well, we still have to address community perceptions that might develop. People routinely assume the worst of intentions, so all of us have to aggressively tell our story and the ethics we employ daily in doing our jobs.

Our ethics board welcomes discussions of these conflicts, real or perceived. To make it easier for readers to contact us about this or any other subject, we decided last month to create the email address of ethicsboard@vicad.com. You may use this to contact our entire board with one email.

We also recognize an email might serve as a way to bring up a concern anonymously, if that's your preference. We like, of course, to talk with people who have concerns, but we recognize some might be uncomfortable at times having their name attached to their concern.

In the same spirit, we are working on creating a way for Advocate employees to anonymously email the ethics board. We want everyone to feel comfortable helping us in our pursuit of the highest journalistic ideals.