By Michael Miner

Every journalist knows that Janet Malcolm’s famous formulation–“Every journalist who is not too stupid or too full of himself to notice what is going on knows that what he does is morally indefensible”–is indefensible but that she’s on to something. The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar. Now Loyola University has a better idea.

On February 22 the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a joint venture of Loyola’s Center for Ethics and the Chicago Headline Club, opened for business. It isn’t intended to be a quick stopover in the deadline dash–“Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.” For one thing, you have to wait for a callback, and that can take hours. And it isn’t intended to be a confessional–“Father, I have sinned. Today I willingly set aside a major investigation of financial improprieties to hunt a congressman’s mistress. Forgive me and send me back to work refreshed, because I’ll need at least another day to find her.”

The AdviceLine was promptly welcomed in the Tribune by a Steve Johnson column whose smart-alecky tone preempted my own, forcing me to scramble for higher ground. “I had a couple good laughs out of it,” says David Ozar, speaking of Johnson’s piece. Ozar, director of Loyola University’s Center for Ethics, is a founder of the AdviceLine. “You’re kind of afraid some people will think it deserves ridicule. I guess I’m surprised that it’s journalists that would ridicule it.” If Ozar’s surprised, it’s because he’s not a journalist.

The AdviceLine was heavily promoted beforehand on the Internet, and the handful of calls that have arrived give us an idea of what it might be good for. One was from an editor of a southern paper who’d been asked to give a speech on ethics and needed help. The other five all involved quandaries. As the Tribune’s Casey Bukro, another founder of the service, puts it, “We’re getting real professionals calling with real problems.”

The first of these was the most bizarre. A New York freelancer called the AdviceLine’s voice-mail service (312-409-3334) and left just her name and number. The next day Ozar got back to her and found her in such “a total state of frenzy” she couldn’t remember why she’d called. She’d just shown the manuscript of a magazine story she’d been working on for two years to an expert in the field she was writing about, and he was so blown away he immediately posted it on the Internet.

“I talked to her for quite a while,” says Ozar. “It was largely hand-holding.” He encouraged her to let her expert know what he’d done to her. And in a later conversation she indicated there was reason to hope: the guy had posted her article on a site so obscure the magazine was still interested.

Next Ozar heard from a political reporter who’d been looking into an incumbent’s conflicts of interest. If he wrote the story his subject was likely to be voted out of office, but the opponent looked even worse. What to do?

Then the president of the Phoenix chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists called because he wanted to think something through. A local group had been setting fires to new luxury homes built in the Phoenix Mountains Preserve. The local alternative weekly, New Times, arranged an interview with one of the arsonists by promising not to contact the police. It didn’t. Should it have?

The murder of two Dartmouth professors had reminded a local reporter of a similar double murder a decade earlier. A surviving family member feared for his life if that old case was resurrected. Should the reporter, who assumed the New York Times eventually would draw the parallel even if she didn’t, honor the survivor’s request for privacy?

The unpaid author of a column on race relations that had run in a local twice-monthly paper for the past four years wanted to run for alderman. The publisher wondered if the column should be dropped until after the election.

All but the last two calls were fielded by Ozar. He broke out the SPJ Code of Ethics (originally written by Bukro back in 1973 but since revised) and read from it to the political reporter: “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” The key word was “courageous.” Print the truth and let the chips fall where they may.

What about New Times and the Phoenix arsonists? Ozar told the caller that New Times could ethically decide the interview would do the public more good than harm. “It turned out that way,” says Bukro, “making a judgment of [the arsonists’] actions even clearer.”

Bukro, overnight editor of the Tribune, is ethics chair of the Headline Club, the Chicago chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He refuses to staff the AdviceLine himself. “We have what I consider experts in ethics answering questions in ethics,” he says. “That’s what makes this so good. At one time Dave Ozar wanted me to answer questions, and I didn’t want to do that. If I answer, it’s a journalist talking to another journalist, and we can get that anywhere.”

So the line is tended by Ozar; by Loyola communications professor Gilda Parrella; by James Burke, a senior lecturer in strategic management at Loyola who chairs the Center for Ethics’ Corporate Values Outreach Advisory Board; and by board members David Enright and John Conmy. Burke, Enright, and Conmy all have spent years working at large corporations and focusing on ethics.

Burke was answering the AdviceLine when the last two calls came in. Burke says he “talked it through” with the caller from Dartmouth. “What we came up with together was that as long as the relative had asked that particular reporter not to write anything, that relative had a right to his privacy. They were sort of ethically bound not to, even though someone else might do it.”

He goes on, “I suggested that the one thing that might override the relative’s request was some indication of a public-safety factor. But the relative made no connection between the earlier murders and the recent ones, even though there were a lot of intriguing similarities.”

When I heard about this call, I thought about what I would want to know. Would bringing up the old murders simply make for a “sexier story”–Bukro’s term–or might the police be working on a theory that connected both crimes? Apparently the reporter hadn’t asked this question. Perhaps the idea that the old and new murders were somehow linked was haunting the community.

“That’s why we have after-action meetings,” says Bukro. “The ethicists don’t think like journalists, and that’s one of the good things about it and the bad things about it.”

These periodic after-action meetings bring the ethicists together with Bukro and other Headline Club leaders to hash over the advice that’s been given out. Ozar compares them to the periodic meetings of ethics committees in hospitals–a milieu he knows a lot more about than newsrooms. The AdviceLine’s first after-action meeting was Tuesday of last week, and Bukro told me there was some disagreement over how the publisher should deal with her race-relations columnist.

When the publisher called about the columnist, Burke got out the SPJ Code of Ethics, which calls on journalists to “shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” To Burke, the key word was “if.” He and the publisher decided that the columns could continue, so long as the paper’s three-person editorial staff reviewed them for conflicts of interest. “There’s plenty of room to criticize this” decision, Burke conceded.

At the after-action meeting, Conmy suggested the columns appear with a disclaimer. Enright didn’t think they should run at all. That’s my position. Any column is self-promotional. Besides, no matter how vigilant the review board, the paper would find itself publishing someone no longer presumed free to say whatever she thought. Why should it want that? Why should she?

The call from the political reporter was the most pointed reminder that ethical judgments often resemble boxes opening within boxes. “Basically, we’re in business to give information, not withhold it,” says Bukro, agreeing with Ozar’s advice to go with what he had. Yes, but what if that reporter had been working on stories exposing both candidates, and one story–on the incumbent–was ready to print before the election, while the more damning story on his opponent needed another week’s work? “You go with what you can prove,” says Bukro. “We know that’s a dilemma.”

But what if the reporter were a victim of what Bukro recognizes as the “subtle corruption” of the newsroom, a preference for quickly reported, eye-popping scandals–like the ones about mistresses and illegitimate children–over complex corruption that’s hard to prove and hard to explain but profound in its effects? What if the story on the opponent weren’t ready because our reporter had been pulled off it to do a quickie on the incumbent?

“The good ones go after the tough stories–like Bartlett and Steel,” Bukro says. But, he allows, “there aren’t many Bartlett and Steels. Publishers just don’t give you that kind of time.”

When I ran through the scenario of the reporter and the two candidates with Ozar, he recalled a historic breakfast meeting of the Corporate Values Outreach Advisory Board in late 1998. Carol Marin spoke at this breakfast, and afterward she told James Burke that if journalism ethics interested him, he ought to get in touch with Casey Bukro. Burke did, and the AdviceLine is what came of their meeting.

Marin took questions from her audience. Ozar remembers a hand going up, someone wondering, “What advice would you give to a young journalist like me to stay ethical?”

“Save your money,” Marin answered. “The time will come when you have to walk.”

Is it ethical to walk when you can’t? Is righteousness right when it means taking your kid out of college? That’s the kind of dilemma historically solved at the bar down the street.

Trib’s Changes More Than Skin Deep

The Tribune has begun promoting the “new look” it’s going to unveil March 19–a narrowed page to save on newsprint. A recent staff memo that outlined the changes shows us how design drives content:

“The more vertical style of the narrower page plus the loss of several lines means we need crisper ledes and that stories must get to the point sooner. Those who love anecdotal ledes have felt some pressure in recent months because we went to a six-story front page, from five stories. Now the redesign will add even more pressure to be clear and concise and reveal the subject of the story before the jump. That in itself is not a bad thing. There are days when the Tribune is awash in anecdotal ledes, some of them more effective than others. In particular, we get many anecdotal ledes that merely describe the physical setting of the first person to talk, or of the story that follows. Moreover, most of our anecdotal ledes take much too long to get to the point.”

The memo went on to say that the new design will demand “more rigorous editing”–that is, greater thought as to which stories make the paper and how. “We will be less interested than ever in routine, incremental, institutional stories that will run inside the newspaper and can easily be covered by wires. In the redesigned Tribune, these will be squeezed into briefs more than they have been in the past, leaving the premium newshole for enterprising stories that our correspondents produce.”

Those anecdotal leads that beset the Tribune today didn’t become fashionable by happenstance. They represent a policy decision made several years ago to move the paper away from dull, formulaic writing. Staffers who believe the result was a lot of stories that alienated readers by taking forever to get to the point are happy to see the pendulum swing back.

To make sure it does, last month managing editor James O’Shea announced a series of seminars on “the way we approach lead writing in the Tribune in an age of competing media and changing habits among our readers.” A panel of writers would talk about “how they construct leads in various kinds of story situations.”

Attendance was mandatory.

News Bites

There’s a little more equilibrium at StreetWise than there was a couple of weeks ago, when executive director Anthony Oliver seemed determined to fire most of his editorial staff and they were firing off press statements lambasting him. Everybody still has his or her job, including editor Jalyne Strong. She was dismissed in January for insubordination–after she’d filed a grievance accusing Oliver of harassment–but went back to work last Thursday.

“I’m not so sure I was invited back as accepted back,” says Strong. She’d been threatening a lawsuit, and the board had heard from her lawyer, Thomas Geoghegan. “If things remain as I’ve experienced them the last couple of days, I don’t anticipate any future litigation.”

The grievance, however, is still on the table. “I’ve gotten assurances the board will take it up and look at it,” says Geoghegan. “That’s certainly an aspect of her coming back.” Says Strong, “I go back under the expectation that people will be treated with respect and not harassed and intimidated in the workplace. From what I can tell, the board has supported that.”

Meanwhile, the Chicago Newspaper Guild has organized the editorial staff. On Tuesday the guild notified StreetWise by letter that it wished the staff to be recognized as a guild bargaining unit.

“Alderman barred black worshippers, suit says” was a front-page headline in the Sun-Times last Thursday. The story under the headline began, “A small, predominantly black congregation on the Northwest Side filed a federal lawsuit against the City of Chicago on Wednesday, claiming religious discrimination because rezoning has blocked it from using a building it bought last year as a house of worship.”

The full story of this lawsuit covered page six. No further mention was made of race, which apparently had nothing to do with the situation.

The Daily Herald just imposed on its employees a 5 percent across-the-board pay cut. But it’s accompanied by a 5 percent reduction in the workweek.

Last week I reported the pending retirement of the Tribune’s Richard Christiansen. This week, unfortunately, the news is the death of Glenna Syse, an old friend of mine who was the drama critic of the Sun-Times from 1958 to 1986. Syse and Christiansen were more than present at the creation of off-Loop theater in Chicago; by taking it seriously and beating the bushes for new productions, they legitimized it. A veteran of a rambunctious production of Aesop’s Fables at the old Kingston Mines on Lincoln Avenue recalls the unlikely sight of Syse and Christiansen so delighted by the show that they walked out holding hands.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Robert Drea.