The following is the final draft of my ethics essay.
I’ve had plenty of experiences in and around the newsroom that have caused me to question my own ethical motives, or those of people I interact with. Most frequently, these situations happen outside of the newsroom, when I’m tasked with interviewing someone who might not understand the journalistic process as well as I do. This responsibility seems to increase tenfold around election season, as people really start to dig into their beliefs and winning arguments becomes more important than finding the truth. As we’re all well aware, the comment sections of the Missourian’s social media pages does serve as a forum for Columbia residents to discuss stories and ask questions. By the same token, many businesses in Columbia have Facebook pages that teem with conversation and debate, and these act as a great resource for reporters looking for story ideas.
That’s exactly how I stumbled into my ethical dilemma last fall, a few weeks before the midterm elections. I live above Sycamore on the corner of Broadway and Eighth, and as I walked out of my apartment that morning to head to my 9:30 reporting class, I saw an interesting chalk sign propped up outside the restaurant. It read “1/2 off sandwiches for 18-30 if you bring in your ‘I Voted’ sticker on election day!” The first time I saw the sign, I didn’t think much of it — I just wanted a sandwich. Later in the day, somewhat desperate for a story idea and definitely still hungry, I ventured to the Sycamore Facebook page to see if they posted anything about the deal I saw on the chalk sign.
Sure enough, Sycamore had recently posted an advertisement for the deal, and people were already commenting in support of the policy, which was clearly intended to turn out young voters, regardless of political affiliation. After a few minutes of scrolling, and some more supportive comments, things suddenly took a turn. A man named Josh Kezer commented the following:
“I’ve done some research on this. This is actually illegal. It may not be illegal in state, as state election laws vary from state to state, but it is federally illegal, as this election has federal consequences. A bribe need not take the form of money; however, it may include items of pecuniary value given in exchange for a vote.”https://elections.uslegal.com/violations-of-election-laws/ Additionally, given the age restrictions, it’s arguably a violation of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the VAEH Act of 1984. According to Rick Hasen, a law professor and election law expert at the University of California Irvine, ‘In elections in which federal candidates are on the ballot, no one can offer any kind of benefit or reward for voting. The simple way to deal with this is to open up the event to all comers — voters and nonvoters alike. This is a very common problem, because people believe they are doing their civic duty by encouraging other people to vote. And in many states, in elections when federal candidates are not on the ballot, this activity is perfectly legal. These things can be targeted to help voters known to vote for one candidate or another.’ Limiting rewards to 18-30 is indicative of a coordinated attempt to influence liberal millennial voter turnout. Again, why not open up the reward for every age? The last I checked there isn’t a voter age demographic that’s voted 100%. Every age demographic needs encouragement to vote.”
That was actually only about half of what he commented, but I made an effort to condense his points, since they weren’t particularly easy to paraphrase. Essentially, Kezer was suggesting that the Sycamore owners were bribing young people to vote by offering this promotion, and that there is a federal statute prohibiting businesses like Sycamore from offering any sort on incentive to vote. This placed me at an interesting crossroads. Obviously, this guy had a lot to say about the voter promotion, and it was more than evident he was against it. However, I was unsure how normal it was to turn a Facebook comments fight into a story, considering I had seen so many end pointlessly before. In theory, it doesn’t sound great to take an argument from an online forum to a real-life one. I decided before I made my decision, I would have to take a look at the credibility of the commenter’s argument and whether there was actually a chance it had tangible consequences. Although my initial instincts told me that this guy was just playing devil’s advocate and wanted attention, I thought it would be worth following up with some research on the federal statute and the points Kezer was trying to make. Poynter Institute’s Code of Ethics states “we manage our conflicts of interest and seek to remain free of influences that might interfere with journalism…” I wanted to make sure I wasn’t just giving him what he wanted by reporting on what he said, and I had to be sure there was a real story there. Basically, I had to be sure he wasn’t just making a fuss so we would pay attention to him. At the same time, I knew I also had to put aside my first impressions and attempt to pursue the story in an objective manner. So, I followed the link Kezer included and discovered that he was actually correct about the federal statute, and technically the Sycamore promotion was illegal.
At this point, Kezer’s comment had already stirred up so much conflict on the restaurant’s Facebook post that Sycamore’s owners decided to cancel the promotion the same day they announced it, because of public scrutiny. The conflict in the comments quickly turned to one about ageism and the right of a restaurant to offer specials to one demographic but not the other. This had blossomed into a story right before my eyes, as I watched in real time as this rogue Facebook commenter single-handedly destroyed a restaurant’s attempt to increase turnout among young voters. The first part of my ethical dilemma came from determining whether this story was a story at all, because at first it seemed to be a determination based on if I wanted to give this guy a voice or not. When the conflict blossomed into something that actually affected the restaurant, unfortunately, that decision was made for me and it was officially newsworthy.
I knew I had an interesting ethical situation on my hands from the very beginning because there was no clear winner and loser in the situation — there’s no cop arresting someone alleged to have committed a crime. There was only an accusation, which resulted in action. Plus, even though the monkey-wrench-thrower was technically right, I still had my reservations because other parts of his comments seemed to suggest he just wanted everyone to know he was right. I spoke with the owners of Sycamore, who seemed very frustrated with the situation. They had two children, aged 17 and 19, and wanted to do something positive to encourage young people to go out and vote. They thought food would be a good idea, since young people aren’t known for their deep pockets, and Sycamore’s food is on the pricy side. It was clear the owners of Sycamore were not happy to have had to cancel the promotion, and said would not have done if they didn’t feel pressured by the threat of imminent legal action from Josh Kezer. If I’m being honest, I really felt for Jill and Sanford Speake, who own Sycamore, because they had just witnessed a completely well-intentioned promotion that was supposed to affect positive change get taken down on the internet by someone who has no clear motivation for doing this. That said, it was my job to find out what Kezer’s motivation was, and it wasn’t ethically right to make that judgement before talking to him myself.
As soon as I reached out to him, he made it clear that he wanted to operate on his own schedule, and refused to talk to me until after 5 p.m. despite my deadline-driven protests. However, once I spoke with Kezer on the phone, he immediately asked who I was and what I studied, and this line of questioning quickly escalated to somewhat inappropriate questions about my political beliefs. It was my first time interviewing someone who truly didn’t want to talk about the story, but wanted to talk about himself. As it turns out, Josh Kezer is somewhat of a household name in Columbia newsrooms, and his story had been covered by nearly every publication in town. He was wrongfully convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. He was exonerated seventeen years later when his innocence was proven with DNA evidence. Since getting out of prison, Kezer has become an outspoken advocate for exonerations for the wrongfully convicted, and had a full arsenal of personal injustice stories ready to unload on me. He essentially wanted me to frame him as a freedom fighter who has overcome adversity and saved the community from injustice (like, apparently, ‘ageist’ sandwich deals).
Kezer kept pestering me to include his backstory in my story about the voter promotion, even though there was no clear reason to. This put me in a real ethical dilemma, because I was faced with a tough decision: Do I attempt to respectfully inform Mr. Kezer that his backstory is irrelevant to my reporting, or do I put in a sentence or two about his newfound, police-like approach to illegal activity? In my opinion, part of the reason the promotion got canceled is because he was so vocal about his opinions. But did that mean he didn’t deserve to have his opinion expressed? Or was I creating a false balance between his story and the sandwich promotion, which weren’t really related at all? Kezer wanted me to frame his backstory as a sort of hero’s journey from behind bars to on the forefront of political conversation, and that just really wasn’t the case. Almost every single other person who commented on the status was in support of the promotion, and most comments were defending the restaurant when it stood accused of knowingly promoting an illegal deal. Now my dilemma had an extra layer — would I be defending illegal activity by choosing to emphasize the positive public reaction instead of the illegal nature of the promotion?
Thus, it was quite difficult to weigh the stakeholders in this situation. It was clear the owners of Sycamore didn’t intend to do anything wrong, but it was also clear that no matter how obnoxious it was, Kezer was right that the promotion was illegal. It was back to that same Poynter Institute Code of Ethics passage that states “we manage our conflicts of interest and seek to remain free of influences that might interfere with journalism…” I felt that Kezer was pressuring me to include something in the story that I didn’t necessarily have to, and thus was getting in the way of my journalistic responsibility to be objective. I was having trouble determining the best way to frame this story, and then I finally realized why: I needed a third party. Here I was stuck in the middle of what was essentially a bickering match between two parties, both of which were right to some extent. I needed an external source, and an expert one at that. I decided the best way to go about this was to speak with a law professor and election rights expert who had no real stake in the situation. The law professor seemed reluctant to say so, but admitted that Kezer was right. However, this excerpt from the story summed up his argument very well:
“In my view, that’s not what the federal statute was aimed at,” Reuben said. He said he personally doesn’t see any harm in Sycamore offering discounts to people who voted. “The application of that rule to a situation like this is, in my view, ridiculous.”
Now that I had consulted an expert source, the framing of the story was much clearer to me: The promotion was illegal, but most people don’t really know why. The story is not about the person who called out the promotion for being illegal, it’s about the fact that it’s illegal and nobody seemed to know why, and that maybe it shouldn’t be illegal. I wrote the story and included nothing about Kezer’s backstory or any of the legal opinions he talked my ear off about, and I respectfully told him I would do my best to tell his perspective, but that the story was about the promotion. I framed the fact that the sandwich deal was illegal as a surprising fact. The headline of the story read: “A local restaurant tried to offer a special for young voters. Turns out, that’s illegal.”
The story was pretty popular and actually got picked up by AP, but I still felt weird about the entire situation and know I could’ve done things a little differently. I absolutely should’ve consulted Liz, my editor, from the very beginning. On top of the fact that she’s a genius, she definitely would’ve been able to give me advice about how to speak with Kezer on the phone and curb some of those monopolizing conversation techniques. In conclusion, I ended up writing a solid story, but I wasn’t confident about it until I fleshed out all of my resources and interviewed three people. If my high school journalism adviser was around, he would absolutely cite this as a prime example of why it’s important to interview more than two people every time you write a story.
Most conflicts only have two sides, and sometimes all it takes to bring them down to earth is an external expert. It also taught me to be conscious of my own biases in situations like this, because if I had not recognized my own views on this situation I may have went ahead and published the piece leaning towards favoring the restaurant. Because I was able to step back, observe multiple perspectives and remain objective in my reporting, I was successfully able to tell the story of a well-intentioned voter promotion gone wrong, and a confusing law that most people didn’t even know existed.