A Northern New York Newspapers editor was recently criticized by a reader for writing an editorial about wind power without disclosing that her brother-in-law may benefit from development of turbine farms in the area.
That reader is full of hot air.
People who write editorials - whether under their own byline or as a collective view of the paper where they work - are not bound to disclose potential conflicts of interest.
Why? Because an editorial, by definition, is an opinion. And opinions, by definition, do not require a standard of fairness.
It simply isn’t necessary for an editorial writer to include in their work all the background they used to develop the belief they believe. That is process. It is the result of the process that matters.
If an editor, for instance, comes to the conclusion that abortion is wrong, they do not have to include that they think that because they are Catholic and that is what the pope told them to think. They could use that to support their argument if they wanted, but they are not bound to.
How they choose to support their opinion is up to them.
Ogdensburg Journal City Editor Elizabeth Lyons recently wrote an editorial about wind power that basically said the town needs to carefully weigh the arguments from the people for it, and the people against, before making any big decisions about regulating development of the industry in Hammond.
The opinion was hardly controversial. It didn’t support the fors or againsts. It just urged the town to proceed carefully.
That her brother-in-law might benefit from wind power development has as much relevance to her argument in the editorial as Doug Hoffman has to politics in the north country today. None. Zero. Zip.
But take it a step further: Let’s say she hated her brother-in-law because he stood to become a millionaire off of turbine development but had no plans to include her in on the, pun intended, windfall. And let’s say that fact alone prompted her to write an editorial saying that wind development is a bad idea in the north country.
She still has no ethical, moral or professional reason to disclose how or why she developed that opinion.
What she thinks is what is relevant to an editorial piece that, by design, tells you what a particular person thinks. How she came to think it, not so much.
In defense of the writer who criticized Mrs. Lyons, conflicts of interest are concerns in the journalism industry. Just not on the editorial page. So, the writer was almost right.
Had Mrs. Lyons been the reporter whose job it was to cover the issue of wind power development in Hammond, and had her brother-in-law had the interest with a developer that was pointed out by the writer, then Mrs. Lyons would not have been the reporter whose job it was to cover the issue of wind power development in Hammond. Someone else would have been moved into that beat.
Reporters, by definition, must present all sides of an issue in their stories as fairly and objectively as possible. There is no room for an opinion in a news story.
Readers are expected to form their own opinions by looking at what the fors and againsts said in the story. The reporter is required to remain neutral and just report the facts.
Anything that would make it appear the reporter could not do this - say having a brother-in-law with an interest in wind power - would disqualify them from covering the issue.
Mrs. Lyons would not be allowed to cover wind power meetings in Hammond as an objective reporter. But that doesn’t disqualify her from having an opinion on the subject to publish on the editorial pages as city editor of her paper.
That’s true whether she hates her brother-in-law or loves her brother-in-law.
But, in the interest of full-disclosure, I am told she thinks he is a pretty swell guy.