Dealing Ethically With the Press: A Guide for Public Officials
While the media and public officials are sometimes said to have
different roles, in the everyday world, they have an important
goal in common: giving the public information about their government.
These guidelines are designed to advance that goal.
- Create a culture of accountability.
Holding power makes some officeholders think they should not
have to answer for their behavior. But wise officials support
the media in reporting on issues that that the public has
a right to know about. Make the press your ally in helping
the public understand what you are doing and why.
- Tell the truth and tell it right away.
History is rife with examples of public officials trying to
cover up wrongdoing, but from Watergate to Detroit Mayor Kwame
Kilpatrick's affair with his chief of staff, history is also
rife with examples of why this is a bad approach. Public officials
should familiarize themselves with Freedom of Information
laws and understand what information is public, because eventually,
it will come out. Failure to provide a timely response to
a reporter's queries is an invitation to an FOI suit, which
will be costly for the government and will probably result
in the media prevailing. A beleaguered official is not helped
by having damaging information come out in dribs and drabs.
More importantly, from an ethical point of view, it wastes
the people's time and money (in the Kilpatrick case, the city
had to settle an expensive whistleblower lawsuit), and it
creates an environment that encourages further wrongdoing.
- Recognize that a public official's private life is not
While there is much to decry in the sensational nature of
today's media, sometimes the public does have a legitimate
interest in the private affairs of a government official.
There's no bright line, but here are some things to avoid:
- Don't conduct private business using city equipment or
facilities. When you spend work time, paid for by the people,
on sending more than 800 instant messages to one woman in
a six-week period, and you do this on your state-issued
cell phone (as the governor of Nevada recently did), the
public has a right to know about it.
- Don't enter into romantic relationships with people who
contract with the government entity for which you work.
This creates obvious potential for conflicts of interest.
- Don't enter into romantic relationships with reporters
who cover you. Recently, the mayor of Los Angeles' split
with his wife was reported by the TV news anchor with whom
he was having an affair. Can the public really expect to
get objective information in such a situation?
- Don't campaign on an issue if you don't want to be held
accountable for it. Your private life may be your own, but
if your ads show you with your family, if you focus on family
values, you cannot then be outraged when the press reports
on any infidelities.
- Do not engage in a pattern and practice of private conduct
that adversely impacts the overall culture of your organization.
One city employee having an affair may not be a public matter,
but when city hall becomes the scene of sex in the stairwells,
midnight poker, and freely available pornography, as it
did in Redding, California, the environment for conducting
city affairs prudently is affected, and the public has a
right to know.
- Fair or no, expect that scrutiny is a part of public life,
especially for officials at a high level.
- Don't be stupid. Don't make your city look stupid.
These guidelines were developed at a session of the Markkula
Center for Applied Ethics "Ethics and Leadership Camp for
Public Officials," June 25, 2008, in a workshop led by
Jerry Ceppos, dean of the School of Journalism at University
of Nevada-Reno and former vice president for news at Knight
Ridder. Working with city and state officials from around the
country, he helped the group tease out best practices for dealing
ethically with the press.