Offbeat
12:49 pm
Thu May 3, 2012

When journalism ethics involve the whole family...

Being married to someone in the news business isn’t easy. Our spouses deal with our long hours and travel, our preoccupation with news when we’re at home, unexpected interruptions on holidays and weekends, and our refusal to accept those free family tickets offered by the nearby theme park.

Lots of families have to deal with long hours and work that follows you home, but that theme park ticket example separates journalists from many other professions. We have an ethics code to follow.

We may model our activities on the RTDNA code of ethics, or the SPJ code of ethics, the PRNDI code of ethics, or at Michigan Radio, we have our own rules. Michigan Radio seriously frowns upon accepting free tickets to an event we’re not attending for work related reasons. It’s too bad, because the kids would love to go to the circus, or Disney on Ice, or any number of events that offer free tickets to media folks.

Outside of the free tickets issue, it’s rare that my journalism ethics affect the family. But recently that changed.

You see, there’s a school bond issue up for a vote in my town. It’s a pretty big deal, and my kids go to the public schools. While I’ve appropriately kept my mouth shut about it, my wife is very much in favor of the bond issue. She’s in the schools more frequently than I am, has paid close attention to the issue, and knows quite a bit about it.

She would also like to visibly demonstrate her support to the community.

(Cue scary music here.)

“But wait honey, you can’t hang those school-color ribbons off the back of the minivan,” I say. “People might think those are my ribbons and assume I’m biased about this issue.”

That didn’t fly very well.

This is not a completely new debate in our house.

As a journalist, I’m not supposed to sign petitions, participate in marches or rallies, or publicly lend my name to political causes. My wife, however, is not a journalist, and so for a long time we operated under the agreement that she could sign whatever she wanted, as long as it was her name, not mine.

That worked fine until a few years ago, when a local organization was collecting signatures to place an ad in the newspaper in support of a particularly heated issue. My wife signed the ad in her name and made her donation.

The problem was, the person collecting the signatures knew who my wife was, and in the paper the signature appeared as “The Vincent Duffy Family.” That resulted in a fairly uncomfortable explanation to the General Manager at work.

The point is, our spouses don’t live in a political vacuum from us news types, but it’s also difficult to ask them to curtail their political statements and activities just because it can create discomfort for us. I signed up for being in the news business, and not voicing my position publicly on many issues is a price I’m willing to pay to do my job well. But my wife didn’t sign up for this. Does she have to live by the same rules?

In addition to the ribbons on the minivan, she also suggested she might like to put a lawn sign supporting the bond issue in front of the house. While I can rationalize that the ribbons are on HER car, how can I justify her political sign in OUR lawn? Do we paint a line down the middle and have His & Her sections of the lawn?

A political lawn sign has no way of informing people it’s the public opinion of only one member of the household, but not another who wishes to remain silent. She suggested perhaps she could make a sign that said, “This Mom supports the school bond.” I’m not sure that puts me in the clear.

For now, the lawn remains empty. (Well, except for the bikes and balls the kids leave on it and the sticks that are always falling out of the trees.) But the ribbons proudly fly on the minivan in support of the schools. Maybe I should just look at this as the perfect excuse not to have to drive the minivan for a while?