Critic's investments raise questions about journalism ethics

September 25, 2005|By PAUL MOORE | PAUL MOORE,SUN PUBLIC EDITOR

Architecture critic Edward Gunts has worked at The Sun for more than 20 years. He was born and raised in Baltimore, is nationally known for his work and is highly respected for his expertise and reporting.

Being a critic also invariably means being a reporter. Covering architecture also invariably means writing about real estate and development.

So when the City Paper published an article Sept. 14 that said Gunts "has made significant real-estate investments in two Baltimore neighborhoods he regularly covers," the issue of potential conflict involving The Sun was publicly raised. The story cited several instances where Gunts praised the houses and the ambience of the Mount Vernon and Bolton Hill areas where he owns property.

The article suggested that Gunts could be using his position at the newspaper to gain personal financial advantage. It also quoted Sun Editor Tim Franklin as saying he only recently became aware of the situation.

The Sun has an obligation to reassure its readers that conflicts of interest are not acceptable. The paper's use in Gunts' case of a new ethics policy adopted in 2004 sheds light on the thoughtful balancing required to fairly monitor ethics.

The new code has a specific reference about conflict of interest: "Staff members are obliged to make certain that no outside personal, ideological or financial interests conflict with their professional performance of duties or raise doubts about The Sun's integrity, credibility or impartiality. Additionally, staff members should avoid activity that could create the appearance of a conflict of interest."

There is no specific reference in the code to real estate holdings.

When Sun editors asked Gunts about his real estate and stories he had authored, he fully disclosed his holdings of rental homes and apartments and said he had mentioned them to editors before writing about the neighborhoods where they were located.

In my view, The Sun has determined correctly that Gunts had no nefarious intent to use his position for personal gain and did not consciously report or write any articles to enhance the value of the properties he owns.

Still, it also is clear that Gunts should not be investing in Baltimore real estate while writing about architecture here.

Gunts has agreed to comply with The Sun's requests that he sell all of his properties by a specific date and not write about those two neighborhoods until then. Gunts will remain the newspaper's architecture critic. Other reporters will temporarily cover development issues in those neighborhoods.

In the context of The Sun's ethics policy, Gunts did make a mistake by not disclosing the extent of his holdings when the policy went into effect in late 2004. Franklin and Managing Editor Robert Blau have been at The Sun for less than two years and were unaware until recently of a situation that several Sun editors had apparently known about for years.

So when the City Paper article appeared, what was being treated as an internal personnel matter became news.

Gunts had read the new ethics code but said that because there was no specific mention of real estate holdings, and because he thought features editors knew of his situation, he did not disclose it to his higher ranking supervisors.

Sun managers argue that the confusion and anxiety created by this situation clearly proves why the core tenet of The Sun's code -- disclosure and discussion with supervisors of all possible problems -- is so essential.

Ethics has become a moving target. What may have been considered acceptable at one time may no longer be. For newspapers and their employees, the line of separation between professional and personal affairs has a higher priority than ever before.

"When I started working at The Sun, we were encouraged to live in Baltimore," Gunts said last week. "Over the years I decided to put my money where my mouth is, by making a commitment to the city by investing what money I had in the buildings I love."

For most of those years, the Baltimore housing market was considered a risky investment at best. Only in recent years has the value of housing in many neighborhoods risen appreciably.

"I have never, ever thought of myself as any kind of real estate mogul," Gunts said. "And I never, ever tried to use my work to add one dollar to the value of anything I own."

An ethics code cannot turn into a game of "gotcha." Without a sense of mutual trust between The Sun's managers and its reporters and editors, efforts to bring the code to life could turn into a war of accusation and recrimination. An ethics policy has to work for the institution and its employees -- and ultimately its readers.

Gunts and The Sun have found resolution in the context of this aim. Is it perfect? No. Will it satisfy everyone? Of course not. Is it an important development in how the newspaper seeks to reconcile the issues of personal privacy and its mission of integrity and credibility? Yes.

Edward Gunts has made the decision that the ability to do his job without questions of impartiality is most important. As a result, the newspaper and its readers will benefit.

A NOTE / / The Sun introduced a new design Monday and continues its retooling with changes in today's edition. Hundreds of readers have responded, and more comments are expected this week. Next week's column will address the redesign and readers' reactions.

THE PUBLIC EDITOR

Readers who have concerns or comments may contact The Sun's public editor at 410-332-6364 or toll-free at 800-829-8000, ext. 6364; by fax at 410-783-2502; or by e-mail at publiceditor@baltsun.com

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