News: Seeking to Avoid Another 'Enquirer' Fiasco, Gannett Announces Ethics Policy

As announced last month by the Gannett Co., the editorial staffs at all 73 of its daily newspapers now will have to abide by a thorough, detailed set of ethical guidelines -- perhaps the one silver

As announced last month by the Gannett Co., the editorial staffs at all 73 of its daily newspapers now will have to abide by a thorough, detailed set of ethical guidelines — perhaps the one silver lining in the yearlong Enquirer/Chiquita saga.

The guidelines were broken into five major "principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms" — seeking and reporting the truth in a truthful way, serving the public interest, exercising fair play, maintaining independence and acting with integrity. Gannett officials said that the policy was arrived at after several months of development by editors, reporters, corporate officials and outside journalism experts. (The full policy can be found at Gannett's corporate Web site: www.gannett.com/go/press).

"In the wake of news-gathering problems last year at Gannett's The Cincinnati Enquirer and at other non-Gannett publications around the country," read the company's June 14 news release announcing the new policy, "company officials determined that it was appropriate to re-examine practices and set out principles in the Newspaper Division that would offer clear guidelines to newsrooms."

The five conduct principles are broken down into 32 statements that begin "We will ..." — most of which reflect basic journalism tenets like "We will correct errors promptly" and "We will uphold First Amendment principles to serve the democratic process."

Quite a few of the statements, however, can be construed to deal directly with the root causes of the mess that caused The Enquirer to fire reporter Michael Gallagher, issue front-page apologies to Chiquita Brands International, renounce its entire series of Chiquita investigative stories and pay Chiquita more than $10 million.

Attention, Gallagher wannabes: "We will obey the law." "We will act honorably and ethically in dealing with news sources, the public and our colleagues."

"We will keep our word."

And to all you editors looking for that prize-winning homerun story: "We will strive to include all sides relevant to a story and not take sides in news coverage." "We will use unnamed sources as the sole basis for published information only as a last resort and under specific procedures that best serve the public's right to know." "We will take responsibility for our decisions and consider the possible consequences of our actions."

Gannett officials go on to spell out in great detail how each of these five principles will be carried out on a day-to-day basis, dedicating a good amount of space to the tricky question of unnamed sources (which is even trickier now, of course, since Gallagher testified against a Chiquita source to whom he promised anonymity).

Gannettoids are told to inform potential unnamed sources that "at least one editor" will know who the source is: "(I)t is the responsibility of the senior news executive to confirm the identity of the source. ... This might require the editor to meet the source."

This directive addresses one of the main Enquirer goof-ups during preparation of the Chiquita series — how the internal private voice mails Gallagher obtained were touted in print by then-Editor Lawrence Beaupre as "provided by a high-level source ... with authority over the company's voice mail system" when no such person existed. Whether Gallagher showed Beaupre a picture of his source in a Chiquita annual report, as the story goes, or Beaupre simply trusted his star reporter's word, it's clear that Beaupre never met the crucial unnamed source.

One of the other major criticisms of the original series — and this came mostly from Enquirer staffers — was that Beaupre kept too much control over the stories in an effort to maintain secrecy and win a Pulitzer Prize. Gallagher and his reporting partner, Cameron McWhirter, worked on the Chiquita stories for a year, with only Beaupre and Metro Editor David Wells editing their work (until, presumably, the paper's lawyers looked at it before printing).

That's a no-no now, says the Gannett policy.

"Involve more than one editor at the early stages and in the editing of the stories," the policy reads. "Question continually the premise of the stories and revise accordingly. ... Have a 'fresh read' by an editor who has not seen the material as you near publication. ... Don't be stampeded by deadlines, unrealistic competitive concerns or peer pressure."

The final section of the new ethics policy explains that the principles will become part of newsroom behavior in several ways: new Gannett hires must "make acceptance of (the guidelines) a condition of employment;" staffers will be trained in the guidelines "at least annually" and sign a statement annually saying they know and understand them; and the principles will be communicated to the public "periodically."

Oh, yeah, the public.

"In recent years, the credibility of the media has declined, in part because of questionable news-gathering conduct," said Phil Currie and Gary L. Watson, Gannett's senior vice president/news and Newspaper Division president, respectively, in the company's June 14 news release. (Currie is the Gannett person who reportedly signed off on The Enquirer's Chiquita series and later transferred Beaupre to an unspecified corporate position under him.) "(A) rededication at this time to our fundamental values is an important statement to our readers that they can trust and believe their local newspapers."

Editor & Publisher, the weekly newspaper industry magazine, offered Gannett a suggestion on a good first step in regaining public trust. In an editorial about the company's ethics policy published on June 26, the magazine said Gannett should "serve notice that it is truly serious about these principles" by explaining whether the original Chiquita stories were true or not.

An excellent idea, but, with The Enquirer's resounding silence on the subject since its apologies ran a year ago, I wouldn't count on it.