Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.
  3. Recognize that a public official's private life is not always private.
    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:
    1. 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.
    2. 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.
    3. 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?
    4. 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.
    5. 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.
    6. Fair or no, expect that scrutiny is a part of public life, especially for officials at a high level.
  4. 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.


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