Reporting the private lives of public officials | Editorial
March 6, 2013 · 3:26 PM
As journalists, we spend much of our time in the gray, sorting out the ashes of political scandals and the fallout from unsubstantiated allegations.
One of the biggest questions we face in the newspaper industry is this: Does this story merit journalistic scrutiny?
Such was the case in a recent story regarding Rep. Roger Goodman’s contentious divorce. His estranged wife alleged that he drove stoned while his kids were in the car. He vehemently denied her claims.
Before our staff even headed to the courthouse to obtain the divorce documents in the case, we considered whether the public’s right to know such information outweighed the public official’s right to privacy.
We agree that, like private citizens, elected officials also deserve some privacy. But where do we draw the line?
We consulted with others in the community, including local legislators, and other fellow journalists. There were compelling arguments for both sides of the ethical issue.
It is sometimes difficult to draw a clear line between a story that is relevant and important to our readers and one that is sensational.
We agree that a divorce is a private matter. But what about an accusation that an elected official may have broken the law?
If someone yelled these same allegations across the room at an event and our staff overheard them, we would not report on the matter if the elected official in question was not arrested or charged with the alleged crime. However, Goodman’s wife outlined these allegations in public documents under penalty of perjury - a felony. This raises the allegation to some degree, which warrants more scrutiny.
As a newspaper, we also have to look at the content of the allegations – substantiated or not – even if that means entering the so-called private sphere.
And when a matter involves a public official, we ask ourselves whether an accusation intersects with the public’s business.
In this case, it did.
We ultimately decided to report on the issue since the substance of the allegations directly relate to Goodman’s legislation for safe driving, DUI law reform and marijuana legalization and decriminalization.
We take our role as public watchdog seriously. We vigilantly examine each story for news value. We want you to find news at the Reporter that is relevant to the community, free from scandal, so you have the information you need to make the most informed decision.