Newspaper’s contribution to political group stirs ethical debate

Rockford Register Star donated $3,500 to Empower Rockford in 2004

Whether the Rockford Register Star’s $3,500 financial contribution to a political action committee represented a breach of ethical standards depends on the source.

Management at the daily newspaper and the Illinois Press Association said such monetary contributions are fine as long as there is a separation between the newsroom employees and management’s opinions.

However, a long-time journalism ethics professor from Southern Illinois University (SIU) disagreed with that rationale. Associate Professor Walter B. Jaehnig believes owners and management should remain as financially objective about community issues as their reporters.

”I would say the Rockford newspaper’s role is to cover this issue. It’s not to spend money to support one side of the issue, as opposed to the other,” Jaehnig said.

Jaehnig has been a journalism professor at SIU for 18 years, and has taught journalism ethics for more than 30 years.

Contributions and controversy

According to state election records, the Register Star contributed $3,500 Dec. 6, 2004, to Empower Rockford, which has raised $21,400 to date for their cause. The newspaper’s publisher and Empower Rockford want the City of Rockford to return to home rule power, which was rejected by Rockford voters in 1983.

The topic is evolving into the hottest political issue since the jail tax debate of 2002.

Two days after the Register Star made the contribution to Empower Rockford last December, the newspaper’s television partner, WREX-TV 13 contributed $250 to former Rockford Mayor Doug Scott’s campaign. WREX’s parent company, Quincy Newpapers, Inc., also contributed $1,500 to Scott’s campaign on the same day.

However, David L. Bennett, executive director of the Illinois Press Association, said there is a difference between supporting a specific candidate, such as Scott, and a committee like Empower Rockford.

In March, Bennett questioned the wisdom of the financial contribution made by WREX to Scott. However, when interviewed earlier this month, he did not have similar reservations concerning the Register Star’s contribution to Empower Rockford.

Bennett explained: “It is not unusual for a newspaper company to financially support community causes. It happens quite frequently, particularly when that newspaper company views the cause as one that will improve the welfare of the community in a significant way.”

Indeed, the Chicago Tribune and Chicago Sun-Times have also contributed money to political causes.

State records show the Chicago Sun-Times contributed $250 in July to Illinois Home Builders’ Political Education Committee. The Chicago Tribune also gave $600 in 2004 to the Illinois Home Builders’ Political Education Committee.

In addition, the Chicago Tribune contributed $200 in 2003 to the Chicago Automobile Trade Association; $800 in 2004 to the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce Political Action Committee; and another $200 in 2005 to Chicago Automobile Trade Association.

Jaehnig added that he questioned the wisdom of any media’s financial contribution to a political committee or candidate. He cited other newspapers such as the Miami Herald and Los Angeles Times that have also come under fire for having financial interests in political causes.


In an ironic statement published in a March 2, 2005 Rockford Register Star article, Executive Editor Linda Grist Cunningham said: “‘The Register Star does not make political contributions because it could be perceived as a conflict of interest for our news coverage.

“My issue in all of this is disclosure,” Cunningham said. ‘With disclosure, even though I’m not comfortable with it and the contribution is a choice we would not make, at least it’s out there for everybody to make their own decision.’”

However, the Register Star didn’t disclose its 2004 contribution until Oct. 25, 2005—six days after The Rock River Times reported about all the contributions to Empower Rockford Oct. 19, including the Register Star.

Cunningham was asked about the incongruities between her statements, the contributions and dates of disclosure. She referred questions to “Fritz” Jacobi, president and publisher of the Rockford Register Star.

Management responds

Jacobi said: “The decision to contribute financially to Empower Rockford was made by me, in my role as president and publisher of a major community business serving this region. Not only has the newspaper’s editorial board long supported home rule, but I personally believe that home rule will benefit the city, and as the city and region benefit, this newspaper and those it serves will benefit as well.

”Just as I make decisions to fund a United Way campaign, I made the decision to support financially Empower Rockford. The newsroom planned its coverage, and the editorial board reached its conclusions independent of the company’s corporate decision. Just as the news staff and the editorial staff maintain independence from each other, they both maintain independence from the corporate roles of the publisher’s office.

“We do not always know what each other is handling, and that’s as it should be because it ensures we maintain our independence of thought.

“Over the past years, we have financially supported many community-based efforts to improve this community. In no case, and certainly not in this one, have we made a political contribution. This is not about electing a particular candidate. It is about supporting a community endeavor that we believe will benefit us all.

“My guess is that the reason the newsroom did not initially report the contribution is a simple one: They did not know,” Jacobi said.

Contribution support

Bennett supported Jacobi’s position. He suggested that such contributions do not necessarily mean a breach of ethical standards.

Bennett said: “It is not unusual for a newspaper company to financially support community causes. It happens quite frequently, particularly when that newspaper company views the cause as one that will improve the welfare of the community in a significant way. My experience is that contributions of this sort typically are connected to the economic welfare of the community.

“For example, when a community has a major initiative to improve its economic base in some manner, newspaper publishers often sit on these planning boards. That sometimes results in the company supporting the effort financially in some fashion.

“Having said that, I think newspapers, newsrooms and editorial departments try to keep a line of distinction between what the company and management might support financially, and what the news department reports and writes about editorially. That’s for obvious reasons. While it may be perfectly fine to support the community financially, it also is important for the newsroom to keep a healthy distance so that it can report and editorialize independently.

“It is quite conceivable in a given situation where a newspaper company’s ownership/management might support a community cause financially, and the newsroom would editorialize against it.

“I’m not in a position to know whether that is the case in Rockford, but the important point is that it is important to keep editorial independence protected should that occur. I know the Rockford Register Star prides itself in having a strong independent voice, regardless of the publisher’s community involvement. They just are two separate functions,” Bennett said.

Different opinion

Jaehnig disagreed with Jacobi and Bennett’s justification for the contributions. He urged the newspaper to report on the home rule issue rather than giving money to the cause.

“I would say the Rockford newspaper’s role is to cover this issue,” Jaehnig said. “It’s not to spend money to support one side of the issue, as opposed to the other. I think it’s in the same way the newspaper wo

uld want its reporters to act in an objective manner in covering the issue, it seems only fair that the management of the newspaper act in that way as well, and not enter into the political controversy on one side or the other.

“So, I would disagree with Mr. Bennett on this,” Jaehnig said

He added that it’s one thing to take an editorial stance on an issue, and is quite another to give money in an attempt to influence the outcome.

From the Nov. 23-29, 2005, issue

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