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Conflict of interest at the IDS?

By Scott Tibbs, April 2, 2002

What would you think of a newspaper whose opinion page editor was not only a candidate of the Democratic Party but also worked for City Hall? At the Indiana Daily Student, that conflict of interest exists. It calls into question the ability of its opinion page to function effectively as an open community forum.

IDS Opinion Editor Travis Thickstun, the former president of the Indiana University College Democrats, is employed by the City of Bloomington in the city council offices. Mr. Thickstun's position with the city and its lack of disclosure appear to be in conflict with fundamental journalistic principles.

As for disclosure, Mr. Thickstun's position has not to my knowledge been mentioned in the IDS, and it has certainly not been disclosed to the extent it should be so the majority of IDS readers would know about it. When a reporter or editor has a specific interest in an issue or an area of government, generally it is considered inappropriate to be in a position where one's own personal interests can affect his performance or the objectivity of his newspaper.

This is especially true for an editor, who has control over not only his own editorials, but also the writings of the staff he oversees. The Society of Professional Journalists Web site (http://spj.org/ethics_code.asp) notes that journalists should, in part:
  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
I only discovered the conflict of interest when I visited council offices for some information and found Mr. Thickstun working there. I was shocked that the IDS would allow Mr. Thickstun to serve as an editor of their newspaper while working for City Hall. This is especially relevant given Mr. Thickstun's position as an editor.

The IDS has employed political activists as columnists before, and many of those activists have provided insightful and thought-provoking columns. Since they were writing their opinions, they were not under an obligation to submit to the higher standards a beat reporter or editor must. But Mr. Thickstun is responsible for the entire opinion page, including who is hired (or not hired) as a columnist.

More importantly, Mr. Thickstun speaks for the official positions taken by the IDS. The IDS has taken at least two editorial positions during Mr. Thickstun's term as Opinion Editor that highlight the potential conflict of interest with his dual employment at the Showers Building and Ernie Pyle Hall. On Thursday, Jan. 31, the IDS Editorial Board expressed support for the city's ambitious plan for West Kirkwood Avenue. On Thursday, Feb. 21, the IDS supported the city's plan to put the ST Semicon site into receivership, a plan rejected by the courts.

While it is true that a majority of the IDS Editorial Board voted to support these two positions, it is inappropriate for an Opinion Editor to preside over the writing of these editorials in support of city government positions while he is working for city government. In addition to the conflict of interest created by Mr. Thickstun's position with city government, Mr. Thickstun is also a candidate for both precinct committeeman and delegate to the Democratic state convention.

While the opinion page of a newspaper is supposed to take positions, it should present itself as an open community forum. Having an opinion editor working for city government calls into question the ability of the IDS to serve this need. Even if Mr. Thickstun has been completely fair in supervising the opinion page, and even if he has taken great pains to keep his position with city government from affecting his judgment at the IDS, holding both positions creates an appearance of impropriety that should be remedied.

The conflict of interest present at the IDS should cause concern about the integrity of Bloomington's student paper. Mr. Thickstun, for the good of the IDS, should immediately resign as Opinion Editor and the IDS should find a replacement free of the conflicts present.