Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Media ethics often are questioned by the public, and local news stations said a spate of recent cases nationwide revealed violations of everyday journalism rules.

A media watchdog group identified 77 TV stations nationwide that aired video news releases without disclosing the source to viewers; a New York Post gossip columnist reputedly asked a Los Angeles billionaire for $220,000 in exchange for positive coverage; and a TV anchor in Los Angeles accepted a $10,000 home-remodeling job for use in a news segment that never aired.

Washington’s TV news stations have policies forbidding the acceptance of gifts or money in exchange for news coverage, and they also ban gifts or favors that could be perceived to be influencing coverage. But not everything is so black and white.

When it comes to owning stocks and securities, there are shades of gray, said Vickie Burns, news director for WRC-TV (Channel 4). If someone at the NBC station is assigned to a general report on a story involving stocks they own, but those holdings do not represent a significant part of their net worth, the reporter can cover the story.

If the stocks are tied directly to the reporter’s net worth, or if the journalist covers a business beat, more consideration is given and the news director must be consulted, Ms. Burns said.

All staffers at WTTG-TV (Channel 5) sign a conflicts-of-interest statement and must report gifts valued at $25 or more, said news director Katherine Green. She added that the Fox station has a strict “pay your own way” policy when reporting stories that require travel, and discloses News Corp. ownership if the corporate parent owns a company in the news.

Employees at WJLA-TV (Channel 7) and its cable sister, NewsChannel 8, also are required to sign documents annually that address conflicts of interest, gifts and even antitrust issues, said news chief Bill Lord.

“It goes beyond news into sales,” Mr. Lord said. “If you even believe you’re on the borderline with one of these things,” the news director, general manager or station attorney must be informed.

The Allbritton-owned stations also have an informal rule on meals. “You can accept anything you [alone] can eat in one sitting,” so a reporter and his family cannot be wined and dined, he said.

Darryll Green, general manager of WUSA-TV (Channel 9), said the Gannett-owned station has a “general” conflict-of-interest policy that all newsroom employees at the CBS affiliate must sign.

Executives said they rarely use video news releases and always disclose when they show footage from an outside source.

For example, 11 years ago when Mars Inc. introduced blue M&Ms, Mr. Lord’s station used 10 seconds of labeled video news release footage, he said.

None of the stations has a formal policy on sports reporters owning season tickets to local franchises, but executives said employees can purchase tickets to entertainment events as long as they pay in full.

WRC sports anchor George Michael said he sees no conflict to holding his longtime season tickets to Washington Capitals games and owning Nationals tickets.

“I pay full face value,”Mr. Michael said. “I get no breaks.”

Still, the relationship between TV stations and sports franchises can push ethical boundaries, said Edward Wasserman, a professor of journalism ethics at Washington and Lee University. “There are strong institutional incentives to elevate the importance of sports locally: it gets them readers and viewers,” he said.

• Channel Surfing runs Wednesdays. Call 202/636-3173 or e-mail dcat@washingtontimes.com.

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