Protecting the public interest: An inside look at newspapers covering the Garden State.

Last in a five-part series on the revolving door between journalism and government in New Jersey. Yesterday, Debbie Holtz wrote about the state of the New Jersey news industry.

To wrap up PolitickerNJ.com’s five part series on the post employment questions that arise when former journalists transition to government and political positions, we surveyed newspapers covering the Garden State about their ethical practices and policies.

We asked questions about the transparency of their codes of conduct, post-employment provisions, and how they protect sources after their journalists leave for greener pastures.

Aside from a few polite “no thank you’s”, most of the fourteen news organizations we surveyed did not respond.

That’s just like a news organization refusing to comment on its editorial policy, from the viewpoint of Dr. Bill Reader, a media ethicist who is also a professor of Journalism at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, Ohio University.

“They are totally fair questions to ask, but I don’t think it’s something they have even considered,” observed Reader who was asked to review the survey.

“The irony is that most papers have a corporate policy on editorial decisions – while they may comment on editorial policy within their own pages – you’ll find it’s their policy not to talk about those things to anyone else who asks about it,” he added.

On the question of transparency, several news organizations covering NJ publish their ethics codes online. We found codes at New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Asbury Park Press and The Record.

“That’s no surprise,” noted Reader. “As far as the first set of questions goes, there’s been a big push in the industry to develop codes and post them online. Some news organizations have even gone as far to have the community they serve comment on them.

Yet these codes are silent on materials of post-employment and protection of sources.

“As for the second set of questions, I really don’t think they have thought about them,” stated Reader. “About the only post-employment restrictions you’ll find are no-compete contracts with competitors.”

But some news organizations have more than toyed with the idea, like The Daily Press in Virginia.

As spelled out by the Press’ Statement of Journalistic Ethics: “A promise of confidentiality is an arrangement struck between the Daily Press and the source — not between the reporter and the source. The Daily Press, as an institution, is promising anonymity, and it is putting the entire company behind that promise. The Supreme Court ruled in 1991 that a reporter’s promise of confidentiality can be construed as a contract between the source and the newspaper company. Reporters and media organizations that breach such confidentiality agreements can be held liable.”

In the interest of full disclosure, the PolitickerNJ News Survey was forwarded to our own editorial management.

Here’s PolitickerNJ’s response: “Politicker.com, which employs reporters across the U.S., has no policy that prohibits employees from seeking for-profit positions with people or entities they cover. But the site’s management acknowledged that recent events in journalism have caused them to look closely at the ethical issues that come from reporters taking jobs with the entities they cover, and said they will soon adopt a policy for their employees.”

Protecting the public interest: An inside look at newspapers covering the Garden State.