Alaska Editorials

Published on NewsOK Modified: September 24, 2014 at 12:58 pm •  Published: September 24, 2014
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At the end of a report on the club — one of several stories she had done on the issue of marijuana legalizations — Ms. Greene outed herself as its owner, uttered an expletive and told her coworkers she quit, walking off set.

It's the nature of Ms. Greene's departure that drove her story viral online, as people around the world debated whether she had been right to use profanity or to quit her job so abruptly.

The story also drove discussion of marijuana legalization into the forefront of the public debate. Those opposed to legalization said Ms. Greene's behavior was typical of what they see as rash impulses of pot users and enthusiasts. Those who support Ms. Greene's cause said her departure to champion a fight she believes in was noble.

There's a significant harm, though, in what Ms. Greene did: by reporting on a subject in which she had a substantial personal and financial interest, she undermined one of the basic tenets upon which the public's faith in journalism is built.

Conflict of interest is a topic in journalism that's never far from the front burner, especially in communities like Fairbanks where reporters' lives inevitably intersect with the topics on which they report. Education reporters have children in the public school system. Crime reporters have friends who get arrested. Politics reporters inevitably get to know the people who run for and occupy public office, and sometimes acquaintances or colleagues we know from being active in the community will themselves choose to run.

When these conflicts arise, we turn to one another for advice on how to proceed. Sometimes a situation is clear cut: a reporter who has a close personal friendship with a political candidate shouldn't cover stories about that candidate.

Other times it's a bit more difficult: the education reporters whose children attend local schools aren't ethically compromised by reporting on education in general, but when reporting on their children's schools or teachers, they're better served to hand the story off to someone else. We check ourselves and each other in an effort to stamp out any real or perceived bias before the stories become public.

That's why Ms. Greene's actions are so harmful. Not only did she not disclose her massive conflict of interest on the topic of marijuana legalization, she actively hid it from her employers so that she could continue reporting on the topic in a way that would be beneficial to her business. Her actions show a tremendous lack of character, and they damage the reputation of the causes she supports. Imagine if a reporter who had done several stories on the oil tax issue was revealed to be on the payroll of ConocoPhillips.

Ms. Greene's actions played into the worst fears of those already skeptical of the media's impartiality. The damage she has inflicted there is done. What we promise is that those of us here at the News-Miner believe in accurate, objective reporting and its value to our community and state. We know journalists at like-minded media outlets around Alaska feel the same way. It's part of a set of values that form the foundation for the work we do every day — a set of values Ms. Greene didn't share.

And we'll be back tomorrow, because we don't have any plans to quit.