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Genia Lovett column: Post-Crescent journalists shouldn't have signed Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker recall petitions

12:35 AM, Mar. 24, 2012  |  
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Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms

WE ARE COMMITTED TO:
» Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way
» Serving the public interest
» Exercising fair play
» Maintaining independence
» Acting with integrity

Seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way

We will dedicate ourselves to reporting the news accurately, thoroughly and in context.
We will be honest in the way we gather, report and present news.
We will be persistent in the pursuit of the whole story.
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We will hold factual information in opinion columns and editorials to the same standards of accuracy as news stories.
We will seek to gain sufficient understanding of the communities, individuals and stories we cover to provide an informed account of activities.

Serving the public interest

We will uphold First Amendment principles to serve the democratic process.
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Exercising fair play

We will treat people with dignity, respect and compassion.
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Maintaining independence

We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report.
We will maintain an impartial, arm's length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.
We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.
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Acting with integrity

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We will obey the law.
We will observe common standards of decency.
We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions.
We will be conscientious in observing these Principles.
We will always try to do the right thing.

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Last week, the Gannett Wisconsin Media Investigative Team broke a story that appeared in The Post-Crescent, exposing 29 circuit court judges who signed petitions to recall Gov. Scott Walker. It was a story we were proud to bring to you. It was watchdog journalism in its finest sense, a role we take seriously.

Today, in the interest of full transparency, we are informing you that 25 Gannett Wisconsin Media journalists, including nine at The P-C, also signed the Walker recall petitions. It was wrong, and those who signed were in breach of Gannett's Principles of Ethical Conduct for Newsrooms.

The principle at stake is our core belief that journalists must make every effort to avoid behavior that could raise doubts about their journalistic neutrality. Political activity is foremost.

It is of little consolation to us that none of the news employees who signed petitions is involved with directing or reporting political news coverage. (None of the employees serves on the investigative team, nor are any of the Appleton employees reporters or assigning news editors.) The fact that any of our 223 Wisconsin news employees signed the petition is disheartening. It has caused us to examine deeply how this happened, how we will address it and how we will prevent future breaches.

First and foremost, we decided to inform our readers and be as open as possible. We have decided not to name the employees. Had they had direct connection to political reporting we would have made a different decision.

We are now in the process of addressing discipline and presenting supplemental ethics training for all news employees.

A number of the journalists told us they did not consider signing the petition a political act. They equated it to casting a ballot in an election, something they have every right to do. But we see a distinction.

Yes, all citizens, including journalists, have a right to hold their own opinions about political issues and to share those opinions with their colleagues, friends or family. Personal opinions are part of human nature. However, journalists who work in a professional news organization must hold themselves to a higher public standard. That is, journalists have a first responsibility to be trusted. They have a first responsibility to protect the credibility of the news they are covering for their readers and their community. They have a first responsibility to protect your trust in the news organization for which they work.

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And so, journalists must make every effort to remain objective and impartial when reporting or presenting the news. They must go to extra lengths to guard against even the impression of favoring a candidate or a position.

And journalists know these things — or they learn quickly — when they enter the field. Journalists must have an intuitive understanding of these duties to their readers and to their profession that override personal interests.

Above all else, we strive to protect your trust in us.

All Gannett journalists are trained on and expected to follow the company's principles of ethical conduct. The 32 principles include these six that are directly relevant to the recall petition issue:

» We will remain free of outside interests, investments or business relationships that may compromise the credibility of our news report.

» We will maintain an impartial, arm's length relationship with anyone seeking to influence the news.

» We will avoid potential conflicts of interest and eliminate inappropriate influence on content.

» We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions.

» We will be conscientious in observing these principles.

» We will always try to do the right thing.

A Gannett journalist cannot uphold these principles and at the same time post a candidate's sign in the yard, or sign a candidate's nomination papers, or join a campaign rally, or sign a petition advocating a recall election.

Going forward, as we have for more than 100 years, we will continue to try to do the right thing for you and for the communities we serve.

— Genia Lovett is The Post-Crescent's president and publisher: 920-993-1000, ext. 201, or glovett@postcrescent.com

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