Ethics Matters

A Monthly Column in News Photographer magazine

Deni Elliott, Director, The Practical Ethics Center, University of Montana
Paul Martin Lester, Professor of Communications, California State University, Fullerton
(E-mail and Web page)

A Classic Conflict of Interest:
A Reporter's Free Advertisement to Himself Turns into Tragedy

By all accounts, Brian Butler and Jeff Derderian are lucky to be alive.

After a stampede within a Chicago bar earlier in the week that killed 21 people, the two drove to the now infamous West Warwick club called The Station to do a story about nightclub safety measures.

Videographer Butler and reporter Derderian work for WPRI-TV, the FOX affiliate in East Providence, Rhode Island. Butler has been a videographer since 1994. Derderian only started with the station a few days earlier, but had extensive experience with a station in Boston and with a rival station in Providence.

As is well known, the rock band playing the night the eyewitness team showed up was Great White, a band that used a pyrotechnics display on stage that was captured by Butler's camera. As shown on the videotape, sparklers used on stage caught a back wall on fire that quickly spread to the ceiling. Butler shot video of confused audience members as he exited the club. Within three minutes, the inside became a flaming death trap. At least 99 people were killed. Butler and Derderian were not hurt and to their credit there were reports that they tried to help others to escape the inferno. The videotape was used repeatedly on several national news television shows and Web sites.

But the two should never have been at that club working on that story.

The distance from the TV station to The Station is about 17 miles or a 25-minute drive. Providence has about 173,000 people while West Warwick has a population of about 30,000.

Why did the two make the drive to the club when there must be similar nightclubs in the Providence area?

WPRI news director Gary Brown reportedly told the Fox News Channel, "We were shooting a special assignment piece ... about safety in clubs. This club had no [safety] issues. It was just a place we could get some video of a nightclub interior."

And why was this club a convenient place to get video?

The answer is that Derderian was a co-owner with his brother Michael of the nightclub. An Associated Press story published on WPRI's Web site ( said that the TV station reportedly had "no plan to publicize or promote Derdarian's nightclub in any way." Nevertheless, this situation creates a classic conflict of interests.

A conflict of interest occurs when there is a divergence between a journalist's private interests and professional obligations, such that an independent observer might reasonably question whether the reporter's professional actions or decisions are determined by considerations of personal gain, financial or otherwise. A potential conflict of interest exists when a journalist has a significant financial interest in a business that is being reported on by that journalist.

There is no mention of conflict of interest in the current NPPA Code of Ethics. However, the ethics code for the Society of Professional Journalists ( details the concern under the heading, "Act Independently" with the explanation, "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."

"Journalists should:

*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.
*Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
*Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
*Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news."
Tragedies tend to bring out the tiniest details connected with a story and its participants. That's because when numerous reporters from around an area converge on a scene looking for unique story angles, those oddities of coincidence often surface. The coincidence that Butler and Derderian were TV news reporters working on a story on nightclub safety measures and instead witnessed what turned out to be one of the worst catastrophes in recent memory might have itself been a unique story angle. But the fact that Derderian was also a co-owner of the club is the type of fact that will become public knowledge because it is unusual for a reporter to both own and cover his own club, and that the ownership of the club is relevant in the larger story. The reporter, then, becomes a part of the story. And that is not good journalism.

The only reason the public learned of the reporter's business interest in the club was because of the tragedy. If the fire had never happened, viewers of WPRI Channel 12 would have probably watched a public relations piece detailing all of the safety measures at The Station with video footage of behind the scene set-ups and the concert with enthusiastic attendees. In other words, the piece would have acted as free advertising for the nightclub. Viewers at home more than likely would never be told of the connection the reporter has with the club. In fact, as of this writing, it is difficult to find any mention on WPRI's Web site that Derderian or Butler are employees of the station. Indeed, the continual coverage of the fire's aftermath rarely includes any information about Derderian's dual role.

Conflicts of interest are a threat to journalism integrity. Not telling the public of that conflict is a form of deception. Deception, without a clearly defensible reason, is blatantly unethical.

It is clear that Brian Butler has no financial connection with The Station. But it should be equally clear that if he knew about Derderian's connection, Butler should have persuaded the reporter/owner to select a different club that night. News photographers should not treat themselves as mere chauffeurs subjected to the visual whims of a reporter's demands.

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