Peter Lisagor
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  • Peter Lisagor

Speaking personally, the Headline Club’s Lisagor Awards dinner has become a big deal in recent years because I get to stand in front of the crowd with my friend Len Aronson, say a few words, and make a presentation. Applause rings in our ears. Last Friday’s dinner marked the fourth time that we’ve given a Chicago journalist the Anne Keegan Award for Distinguished Journalism, which Len founded to honor his late wife, a former Tribune columnist. The award celebrates work that reflects “the dignity and spirit of the common man.”

This year we gave the Keegan Award to Maureen O’Donnell, who writes long, celebratory obituaries for the Sun-Times. In her remarks, O’Donnell reflected the dignity and spirit of Chicago’s shrunken newspaper community. “We’re still here!” she said feistily. “Were still here!”

From time to time Len and I wonder if the Keegan Award will survive us, but it’s not something we worry about. Everything has its life span. Studying the program as I waited for our moment in the sun, I pondered an already vanished tribute: the Headline Club’s Ethics in Journalism Award. I’d written about the ethics award when it was created in 1996 by Casey Bukro, a Tribune reporter and Headline Club president who’d written the first code of ethics of the club’s parent, the national Society of Professional Journalists. But Bukro retired in 2007, and no ethics award has been given since.

I called Buckro and asked why. “There didn’t seem to be anyone interested in taking it over,” he said.

I always liked the ethics award because of the way it riled me up. Some of Bukro’s choices were beyond dispute—for example, Carol Marin, honored in 1997 for resigning from Channel Five after it hired Jerry Springer as a commentator. But other times I felt Bukro was straining; one of those times was 1999, when the editor of the Sun-Times, Nigel Wade, won the award simply for running the story of a school shooting on an inside page. I thought Bukro’s thinking about ethics in journalism missed the point: ethical journalism isn’t so rare it has to be singled out and garlanded to keep it alive. Journalists make ethical choices as a matter of routine, and the ethical behavior that most impresses me didn’t register on Bukro’s radar at all. This behavior is simply sticking with a story.

For instance, the Headline Club just gave its Watchdog Award for Excellence in Public Interest Reporting to Marin, Tim Novak,and Chris Fusco of the Sun-Times. David Koschman died in 2004 after being punched by R.J. Vanecko, the nephew of former mayor Richard M. Daley, and the Sun-Times stayed on the story until Vanecko pleaded guilty to involuntary manslaughter 16 months ago. Accepting the award, Novak said more reporting remains to be done.

I’d have given them an ethics award too. I’d give an ethics award to Steve Mills of the Tribune, who with a changing cast of partners has been producing stories on the bleak subject of prosecutorial misconduct since the 1990s.

But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away. In 2001 he and David Ozar, former director of Loyola University’s Center for Ethics and Social Justice, created the Ethics AdviceLine (866-DILEMMA), a resource for journalists with moral quandaries. A Loyola ethicist was always on call. The AdviceLine continues, and the present crop of ethicists Ozar recruited from the ranks of the Association for Practical and Professional Ethics hails from Loyola, the University of Oklahoma, and Northern Colorado University. Medill has joined the Headline Club as a partner in the operation, and a year ago tech-savvy Stephen Rynkiewicz, formerly of both the Tribune and Sun-Times, joined the board. The telephone line has now been augmented with a website,, where questions can be submitted online and everyone blogs.

“We used to get two to three calls a week,” says Bukro. “I would say today we’re getting two to three to four calls a month—half by phone and half online.” The reason for the drop, he thinks, is that there are fewer journalists these days, and they tend to be younger, more naive, and too insecure to rock the boat. Even if they recognize an ethical breach, they’re so glad they have a job they don’t make anything of it. And because their bosses are also younger than bosses used to be, Bukro believes the need to pound some ethical fundamentals into everyone’s head is profound.

Recently, Bukro began discussing AdviceLine topics in his blog. His most recent post gets into the question of newspaper publishers and editors who join the boards of local civic groups, a situation that’s come up in queries more than once. Bukro categoricially disapproves; he thinks journalists need to draw clean, clear lines that the public can’t misinterpret. To me he described a tricky situation presented to the AdviceLine several years ago.

The publisher of a small-town paper had joined the board of a leading charity and discovered that thanks to the last executive director’s incompetence, the charity now owed more than $20,000 in federal fines. Should he publish the story? This was a waste of donated money, after all. Or should he respect the confidentiality the board assumed its affairs were conducted in? He called the AdviceLine and talked to Ozar. Ozar teased out the publisher’s own feelings. He wanted to hold off on the story—he argued to Ozar (and himself) that people would be furious if they knew what had happened and donations might dry up, yet the new executive director had put the organization back on track and there was no risk of further losses. Ozar went along with him. Bukro did not. At a staff post mortem he said, “I totally disagree. This is malfeasance, and the story needs to be told.”

Bukro told me, “Ethics is a tough issue. You can have a lot of disagreements.”

But although no ethics award was given to anybody at this year’s Lisagor dinner, won a Lisagor for Bukro and Rynkiewicz as best continuing independent blog. And in April, the blogging of Bukro, Rynkiewicz, and ethicist David Craig had won a national Sigma Delta Chi Award given by SPJ for online column writing. That’s fine. Ethics is better honored as a theme than as behavior. Let virtue be its own reward.