The student journalist's dilemma

Speech team captain, campaign volunteer, student government president, newspaper editor ... can ambitious college student journalists handle it all? And with concerns over impartiality and conflicts of interest filling newsrooms, should they be allowed to?

Conflicts of interest can pop up frequently in the staff offices of student newspapers, where journalism might be considered a club activity more than a profession. Some colleges and universities have developed their own conflict of interest policies and codes of ethics to help student journalists adjust to professional guidelines and avoid conflicts of interest within their publications.

When student journalists don't adhere to these policies and engage in conflicts of interest between their reporting and outside interests and activities, their college journalism careers can be endangered.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived" and "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." According to SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman Andy Schotz, this guideline means different things to different news organizations.

"There are different degrees of how you see that conflict," Schotz said. "Two people can come up with a different answer. It doesn't mean that one person is right and one person is wrong."

Frank LoMonte, executive director of the Student Press Law Center, said the nature of the news organization makes a difference when determining how serious conflicts of interest are. If the publication openly espouses a political agenda, conflicts of interest might not be an issue. "If it has an ideological agenda made clear from the start, it may be less of a concern," LoMonte said.

Policies on avoiding conflicts of interest may differ between news organizations, but no matter how lax these policies may be, the issue of conflicts of interest is important for journalists to consider when reporting, Schotz said.

"It's certainly a question to ask when you are reporting and you have some type of other involvement," Schotz said. "[The guidelines are] to at least get you to ask the question, 'What are the possible conflicts here and how can I avoid them or minimize them?' "

"It's really a matter of judgment and professionalism," LoMonte said. "The publication just has to come up with really clear standards."

Political conflicts within opinions pages

In March 2009, the importance of having a clear conflict of interest policy became evident for members of the Recorder, Central Connecticut State University's student newspaper.

The Recorder ran into a problem with political conflicts of interests of a newspaper editor. Then-Opinions Editor Marissa Blaszko was fired for what she claims were her socialist political views. But Editor-in-Chief Melissa Traynor said it was not Blaszko's political views but the actions she took on her views that made her uncomfortable with Blaszko's position as opinions editor.

"Their argument was that it was the activity, my argument was that it was the politics," Blaszko said.

Blaszko had been the opinions editor for more than a semester at the time of her termination. As the semester had progressed, she became increasingly politically active, especially with the campus-based organization Youth for Socialist Action, and attended demonstrations and political rallies for this organization.

A major concern for Traynor came when Blaszko signed her name as the opinions editor for the Recorder on political petitions."No one on the Recorder [is] allowed to sign petitions or anything in a political nature or volunteer their time or effort or give their opinion as a representative of the Recorder," Traynor said.

Blaszko said she didn't think her political beliefs conflicted with her abilities as opinions editor.

"I don't think there was a conflict of interest at all because everybody has biases, whether they're open about them or not," Blaszko said. "So just from a theoretical perspective, my biases are maybe more apparent than others, but the writing would have been the same."

The Recorder's code of ethics states: "The newspaper does not have an official political stance, so political bias should be kept within the appropriate pages dedicated to commentary." It also says "editors of the Recorder shall not participate in any form of student, local or national government and should be free of any ties to any political organization, campus-based or otherwise." So what can the opinions editor do?

"Within our opinion pages, if you're a staff writer, you're allowed to express your political opinions within the Recorder and if you're an editor you're also allowed to do that," Traynor said. She explained that the Recorder editorial staff looks for local content relevant to campus life, so they tend to not run articles about issues not related to the campus.

Blaszko said she thinks having a political opinion can improve and strengthen articles.

"If you look at a lot of news anchors, they clearly have an understanding of current events, because that's their job, they need to know these things," Blaszko said. "Whereas you get somebody who doesn't know their politics or doesn't disclose their politics, you're going to get articles that aren't very sophisticated or don't have a lot of analysis or historical perspective."

Code of conduct for campaigns: Just say no

Student journalists at the Jambar, Youngstown State University's student newspaper, have a policy that directs them to avoid conflicts of interest both on and off campus.

Staff reporters are not allowed to write about clubs and activities with which they are involved, and editors who are involved with a club do not make editorial decisions about articles concerning the club. They instead pass the articles on to an editor without ties to the club.

Off-campus conflicts of interest, specifically political conflicts of interest, became an issue during the Obama campaign last fall, Jambar adviser Mary Beth Earnheardt said.

"Because the campaign really tapped into young college students, we had issues with staff members being volunteers and really campaigning," Earnheardt said.

According to Earnheardt, when an arts and entertainment editor, Liz Boon, appeared in a campaign poster on campus, the editor-in-chief of the Jambar asked the editor to refrain from campaigning for a candidate. The arts and entertainment editor instead gave up her position with the paper in favor of her work with the campaign.

"As far as I'm concerned, that's the right outcome," Earnheardt said. "If you want to be a member of the working press -- which all student journalists are -- then you abide by the professional codes and behaviors." Earnheardt said she, too, follows the Jambar conflict of interest policy.

She does not publish her political affiliation or join political groups on social networking sites like Facebook, and she asks her students to do the same. Earnheardt said she also encourages her students to look at the SPJ code of ethics for guidelines on behavior and conflicts of interest.

"[The student journalists] don't look at it as being a member of a club," Earnheardt wrote. "They see it as their profession and they take it seriously."

Politics and social media: To tweet or not to tweet

The conflict of interest policy for the Daily Tar Heel, the University of North Carolina's student newspaper, covers political involvement of staff and editors and is especially strict regarding involvement with student government, said Editor-in-Chief Andrew Dunn.

"The one thing that we're hard and fast on and there's no flexibility with is the rule that you can't be in student government and on the Daily Tar Heel staff," Dunn said. This rule has been enforced since 1993, when the Daily Tar Heel became independent from the University of North Carolina after the paper stopped taking student fees for funding.

Dunn said one of the most common infractions of the conflict of interest policy comes when Daily Tar Heel staff members sign petitions to put candidates on the student government elections ballot.

"Inevitably, no matter how many times we tell people they can't [sign one of these petitions], we have a few people who sign it," Dunn said. Staff members who sign these petitions are suspended from their work on the Daily Tar Heel for the remainder of the semester. They are permitted to return to work on the paper the following semester.

The Daily Tar Heel's conflict of interest policy is a work in progress. The editor-in-chief of the paper updates its code of ethics and conflicts of interest policy every summer to make sure the guidelines outlined in the codes are current and relevant. This summer, Dunn added a social media policy to deal with the explosion in popularity of sites like Twitter.

"We discovered over the summer that people were tweeting a lot about the Daily Tar Heel, and so we wanted to come up with some sort of policy," Dunn said.

Dunn said he tried to base the Daily Tar Heel's social media policy on guidelines he had seen for large, mainstream newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, but ultimately, he said, they had to make their own policy to suit the needs of student reporters.

"We wanted to come up with some sort of policy and we didn't like the ones that other newspapers had. ... We wanted to draft our own version for a college newspaper," Dunn said. "But I haven't seen the social media policy at any other campus newspaper yet."

The Daily Tar Heel's social media policy deals with issues like online representation as a Daily Tar Heel reporter and "friending" sources on Web sites like Facebook. It bans reporters from revealing political affiliations or preferences on profiles or in status updates.

Opinions editors, however, are allowed to express their political viewpoints since, according to Dunn, they have already stated their biases in their columns in the paper.

Student journalism: Why so serious

Sometimes students must decide how seriously they want to represent the role of a journalist.

"There's kind of this idea on campus where people go to school and they join clubs and student activities because they kind of just want to hang out and do whatever they want to do, and they don't really treat it as though they are preparing to leave college," the Recorder's Traynor said. "A lot of people have been making the argument that the newspaper is almost too realistic or real-world oriented. There's a lot of people who think that if you're a student you don't have to be professional about certain things, whereas we take this very seriously."

The Daily Tar Heel's Dunn said his staff and editors act like a professional newspaper, and their sources treat them like a professional newspaper.

"We still have challenges because we're a student newspaper and people have class, so it's not a full-time job for a lot of people, but we take ourselves seriously and I think it's really helped us in the long run," Dunn said.

Earnheardt said conflicts of interest and codes of ethics should be taken just as seriously for journalism students as working journalists. "We take our profession seriously," Earnheardt said.

"I don't think that anyone would question law students or med students who abide by professional codes of ethics and I don't see why it's okay to question journalism students."

reports, Winter 2009-10