Editorial: Tempt me with strawberries, but I just can't do it
My first full-time journalism job was for the Camarillo Daily News, a small daily newspaper in California. When strawberry season arrived, my editor directed a photographer to go down to a specific stand and take a photo for the front page.
The photographer always returned with a box of fresh strawberries for the editor, which he gleefully accepted.
I was new to journalism but that bothered me. It still does (the newspaper closed in 1993).
Last week I went to one of my favorite lunch spots, and the kind folks there asked me to sign a petition for a school board member. It’s not the first time I’ve been asked, there have been about six such requests in recent months. The wonderful ladies of Jed’s Sandwich Shop were a bit surprised when I told them I couldn’t sign the petition.
First, I don’t live in the district. More importantly, because I am a journalist I can’t appear to endorse anyone’s campaign. Those petitions are public records and anyone can request them and see who signed each petition.
“Newspaper editor endorses Jane Doe’s campaign for school board” is a headline that I would never want to see.
Now, is it likely anyone will put in a public records request for those petitions and then hunt through them to see if they were signed by any journalists? Of course not.
If you only have ethics when people are watching, then you don’t have ethics.
I personally support everyone’s right to run for office and would happily sign any petition, even if I disagree with the candidate.
But the perception is just as bad as actually accepting a box of strawberries in exchange for front-page promotion of a specific stand.
Someone should have told Bill Clinton that before his meeting with the Attorney General.
One question I ask all new journalists I work with who are fresh out of J-school: What is the No. 1 thing newspapers sell?
It’s not news, it’s not information, it’s not advertisements nor comics. It’s credibility, and we all have a duty to protect it. If the readers don’t believe what we’re reporting, then they have no reason to pick up a paper each week. If they don’t believe that we’re doing our best to be fair and honest, we’re done as an industry.
Some journalists are even more extreme than I am, refusing to register with any political party. It’s our role to be independent and even though we get criticized by folks who don’t like reporting that differs from their point of view, I like to believe most Americans trust that we are.
So there’s nothing personal when I decline to sign the petition or I refuse to accept some free sprouts at the Farmers Market or when I take gifts mailed to me at the office to the local thrift store to donate.
I’m just doing my job, even when it means turning down a box of delicious, fresh strawberries.
— Ken Sain
Ken Sain is associate editor for the Chino Valley Review and Prescott Valley Tribune. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.