Impartiality doesn’t require living in a bubble
By ERNIE GATES | STARS AND STRIPES OMBUDSMAN Published: April 26, 2012
The legislative move in the House Armed Services Committee this week to block Stars and Stripes’ relocation to Fort Meade, Md., puts that topic back on the table. But lawmaking is a long season, and I don’t intend here to repeat the case I’ve made in previous columns against co-locating Stripes’ independent newsroom with the production center of command-centered publications, TV broadcasts and Web content.
Instead, I’d like to explore the journalism value at the heart of that dispute — independence — and especially address an angle that keeps coming up in the online comments from readers. Not because those commenters are the squeaky wheels, but because their comments give me a chance to illuminate an important journalism issue for a larger audience.
Independence is a core value for any credible newsroom, and it poses a special challenge for Stars and Stripes because of Stripes’ unique hybrid nature: Stripes staff members are Department of Defense employees, but its mandate from Congress is to cover the DOD (and other subjects) like an independent, commercial news operation. To faithfully serve deployed American troops and their families — fellow DOD employees — Stripes’ staff must be unswayed by the employee relationship. But that requires discipline, not denial.
Any newsroom must occasionally face that internal challenge. A parent company’s successes or failures make news. A fellow employee or the family member of a colleague commits a crime. Business operations tangle with local zoning or environmental regulations. The newsroom’s obligation is to report impartially on those stories, to treat them just as they would treat comparable stories without the employee connection.
The difference is a matter of scale: Stripes handles that challenge in its daily routine, because its primary subject is also its employer.
And that leads to some misconceptions.
Let me address some of those by answering questions posed by a reader who goes by the web name “Audie Murphy” (which I’m guessing is a nod to that World War II battlefield hero’s Army exploits, not his subsequent Hollywood career). The questions came in the online give-and-take that followed my recent column updating the proposed Fort Meade move.
• “If you are so interested in impartiality, independence, and the ethics of journalism, why do you let your reporters live on military installations overseas and take advantage of the special access they receive to the Post Exchange, commissary, schools, etc? If you truly want to be treated like real members of the media, have your reporters give up their military ID cards and move them off base.”
First, most Stripes reporters don’t live on military installations, except in Japan. More important, reporters and editors everywhere live, work, play, shop and raise families in the communities they cover. Not only is that not a fatal conflict, but it’s a benefit, an advantage that helps make coverage relevant.
Impartiality is a discipline, not a black-and-white command to put on blinders. Being an education reporter, for example, doesn’t mean not sending your kids to the local school system. It does mean not taking advantage of your position to influence decisions about your kids. Those rules go for covering DODDS, the same as for school coverage at any commercial newspaper. The analogy holds for recreation centers, food courts, sports leagues, public safety, water and electric service, and so on. Discipline means reporting at arm’s length — not leaving the room entirely.
Journalism ethics does require that you identify yourself as a reporter when you’re on the job — including when a social situation or a shopping trip suddenly turns into a reporting opportunity. That’s not just ethics, but common courtesy. But it doesn’t require that you call the public affairs office before going to the scene of a fire or other breaking news — any more than a commercial reporter would do that in any city in America.
• "(W)ould it be ethical for the Army to provide the New York Times exclusive, 24/7, unescorted access to garrisons overseas, while not providing similar access to other members of the media? How about if the Army also paid the NYT reporters’ salaries [and] gave them access to discounted shopping at the PX and commissary?"
Stripes staff members can move around on base relatively freely because, as DOD employees, they’ve already passed a certain level of security review. Their work space is often on base. But that doesn’t give them special access to restricted areas. As for who signs the paycheck, it’s the same for the Times as for Stripes: Being independent means sometimes reporting what the boss doesn’t want to hear. At the PX and commissary, Stripes staff members get the same discounts as any other DOD employees, much as staff members at a commercial paper get discounts at the company store or access to those company seats on the third-base line or to the company skybox at the basketball arena. In a private business context, it’s like the bike shop worker who gets a discount on her new bike. It’s not special treatment; it’s the same treatment as other employees.
Again, and finally, adhering to the journalism value of independence doesn’t mean living in a cramped, artificial bubble. It allows some practical elbow room, and a sense of proportion. That’s why, as I try to look out for readers’ interests as ombudsman, I worry more that Stripes reporters will be inhibited from doing their jobs than that their ethics will be compromised by getting the commissary price on organic yogurt.
Got a question or suggestion for the ombudsman on what appears, or should appear, in Stars and Stripes? Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or phone 202-761-0587 in the States.