Monday, March 28, 2005

Ethics: What, me worry?

From the Alfred E. Newman School of Ethics, we offer this exhibit:

At the same time one of Florida's most visible television reporters brought the news to viewers across the state, he earned hundreds of thousands of dollars on the side from the government agencies he covered. Mike Vasilinda, a 30-year veteran of the Tallahassee press corps, does public relations work and provides film editing services to more than a dozen state agencies.
The Sarasota Herald-Tribune tells this sordid tale. But, of course, the reaction from some quarters (think TV) is less than shocking. From Forrest Carr, news director at WFLA-TV, one of the Media General partners in TBO online:

Carr said Vasilinda's business is separate from his news reporting and does not represent a conflict of interest that concerns News Channel 8. The station does not plan to stop airing Vasilinda's stories, Carr said.

``We have discussed this. He assures me he has safeguards in place,'' Carr said. ``He would not allow himself to be in a position where he would allow his journalism to be compromised.''

Carr said most media companies have government contracts, but they are carried out by people who aren't involved in news coverage. Because Vasilinda runs a small business, he is unable to separate the business and news sides of his organization, Carr said.


(Note to self: Investigate the apparent segmentation of ethics by market and business size.)

At the Tampa Tribune, upstairs from WFLA, Executive Editor Janet Weaver's taken a little different stance by promising a full review of the paper's use of Vasilinda's work.

Look, it's impossible to totally separate both sides of your work. To do so would pretty well take cleaving your brain. Or, as the paper quoted Bob Steele, ethics professor at the Poynter Institute:

"Journalists should be guided by a principle of independence, and their primary loyalty should be to the public ....When journalists have loyalties to a government office or government agencies, those competing loyalties can undermine journalistic independence."

Vasilinda sells his stuff to stations throughout Florida (mostly to NBC stations) through the Capital News Service he founded, The Florida News Channel (the one that boosted the use of the "virtual" (read fake) set), and to CNN. As the blurb on Vasilinda's Web site says: Through the years, we've proven that we can meet any challenge, even under the most adverse conditions, and achieve our objectives.

Hmmmm. Just what are those objectives?

But what, me worry?

---

UPDATE:

Vasilinda has posted an extensive defense.

From Romemesko letters:

Forrest Carr of WFLA in several posts, defends Vasilinda (post 1, continued here, post 2)

Eric Deggans of the St. Pete Times says the problem here is transparency -- that "viewers should at least be told when he is reporting a news story associated with an office that also pays his company."

Another commenter, Steward Ugelow, calls the story "a journalistic sand-bagging." Chris Davis of Sarasota responds as does Matthew Doig.

It does occur to me after all this back and forth that newspapers have some vulnerability here -- unless they don't take government legal ads, that is. The argument will be made, as it is in those linked posts, that those ads are different, that they are sold by ad departments squirreled away and that never get involved with the newsroom (except, I know cases where ad staffs were told to let the newsroom know of any interesting legal ads that came in). In that light, Vasilinda's plaint that his ad and news operations are separate sounds just the same.

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