Other than “The building’s on fire,” there are few statements that command my attention more than “I have an ethical question for you.” At this point, I step away from my computer, exhale and yearn for the days of yore when editors were expected to keep full flasks in their desk. (Should those days return, fill mine with Macallan.)

Pull up a chair, whippersnappers, and I’ll tell you an ethical horror story, or in airplane parlance, what is also known as a near-miss:

When I was the editor of the San Antonio Current, two freelance writers pitched an investigative story about Edison Schools, a for-profit company that is often hired to operate low-performing public schools. The byline was to be shared (Full disclosure: I cannot remember the authors’ names, probably because I have blotted them out of my consciousness).

When I received the final draft, I began factchecking, and lo and behold, the FIRST 17 PARAGRAPHS OF THE STORY WERE PLAGIARIZED. Yep, lifted directly in order from a newsletter published by a California educational advocacy group. After my nausea subsided, I notified both writers, neither of whom accepted responsibility, that the story would not run—and why—and that they were d-e-a-d to me. The story did not get in the paper, but had I taken a shortcut that day and not spot-checked the piece, well, I don’t want to think about it.

How do ethical breaches happen? Sometimes it’s naivete or ignorance—I have another story exemplifying this that I’ll save for a subsequent post. But other times the motivations are more pernicious: laziness, arrogance, carelessness and willful disregard for all that is good.

Back to the original scenario: “I have an ethical question for you.”

Some ethical questions are clear-cut: You never plagiarize or fictionalize or misrepresent yourself to a source. And if you do, “Would you like fries with that?” will soon become an important part of your daily vocabulary. Or your life story, like that of Stephen Glass, will be the plot of a Hollywood movie.

Others are hazier: “Should I disclose that Musician X used to be my roommate?” Initial answer: “How long ago was the living arrangement?”
Or “A source wants to remain confidential. Is that OK?” Initial answer: “On what grounds?”

Here are some common ethical questions that we field:

Question: Can editorial staff members contribute to political campaigns?

Answer: Nope. However, partners, spouses and other family members can contribute to candidates if the relatives don’t work for the Indy‘s editorial department. My husband donated to a Democratic candidate, but I don’t know which one. We have a don’t ask, don’t tell policy at our house.

Q: How about nonprofits?

A: Many media organizations prohibit their editorial employees from contributing to nonprofits. We are not that strict, but we do prohibit writers/ editors from covering nonprofits if they’ve donated money to or volunteered for the group.

For example, I donated money to the Animal Protection Society of Durham in memory of one of my cats, Stinky. APS is off-limits for me to cover, as is the Coalition to Unchain Dogs, because I participated in a fundraiser for the group. I also don’t cover Independent Animal Rescue, because I am a former volunteer. I can call members of these groups for comment on an unrelated story, but any profiles, investigations, etc. are a no-no for me.

Other real-life examples:

Q: Should a writer accept free meals at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference?

A: No. There’s no free lunch in Indyville. Our editorial staff members and freelancers cannot accept freebies with a value of greater than $5, and even then, we have to repay the source. And you can’t bribe us with 10 cups of $3 coffee. Lest there be confusion, you can’t bribe us at all. Our food reviewers do not accept free goods or services, either.

Q: What do you guys do with all the free CDs, movies and books that you get in the mail?

A: We keep them on file, give them away to fellow staff/ freelancers or to readers as part of Indy swag. We can also donate them to charity—check your local Goodwill or library book sale—but we’re not allowed to resell these items.

Q: In some stories I’ve noticed some people choose not to be named. Are these anonymous sources?

A: Big clarification in order here: The Indy does not use anonymous sources. We have to know the name of the person we’re talking to. (And yes, we do background checks and verify.) Confidential sources are different; we know the person’s name and background. If we quote a confidential source, we explain why in the story: Fear of retribution is the main reason, and even then, it’s our call if the fear is legitimate or just a way the source can cloak his or her identity. We use confidential sources sparingly because too many unnamed sources can undermine the authority of the story.

Q: How are you going to cover Durham City Council now that Indy owner Steve Schewel is an elected councilman?

A: Our coverage will not change. We’ll report on the activities of the council as we have in the past and Steve will receive no special treatment. He understands the ethics of the situation and expects no less of us.

Tune in tomorrow when I regale you with a tale of misrepresentation and blatant dishonesty.