An ethical problem on the local level

25 Apr

The Cobb County Courier may be a small paper, but it faces its fair share of ethical dilemmas.

“There are a bunch of small ethical decisions during the course of a day,” said Larry Johnson, the editor and publisher of the Cobb County Courier, an online Georgia news source which he created nearly three years ago.

On Tuesday afternoon, he found himself dealing with one of those ethical issues.

During an agenda-setting meeting earlier this week for a future Cobb County Board of Commissioners meeting, Johnson learned that Cobb Senior Services let a $10,000 grant expire. This grant, given by the Atlanta Regional Commission, was for the transportation of elder citizens.

No other news source had caught wind of this. Even fierce competitors like the Marietta Daily Journal, which Johnson guessed had 20 times more readership than the Courier, had yet to publish a word about the lost grant.

Cobb County, Georgia, is just outside of Atlanta.  According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data, Cobb County holds more than 750,000 people. Picture from

Cobb County, Georgia, is just            outside of Atlanta.                  
According to 2016 U.S. Census Bureau data, Cobb County holds more than 750,000 people.
Picture from

No other journalist attended the agenda-setting meeting. Johnson, a senior at Georgia State University, had already finished up his course work for the semester, thus giving him spare time to sit in on the rarely-covered meeting.

Despite the lead, Johnson opted to move slow. As a 66-year-old with more than 30 years of freelance experience, Johnson had developed the patience to sit on a story until more information became available. Too much was unknown.

What kinds of transportation did the grant funds cover? Were the funds to transport elderly citizens to recreational facilities, or for something more serious, like medical transport? Did the county let the grant funds expire intentionally? If not, how exactly did this expiration happen? How often did this kind of thing occur?

On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson knew he had a few days of digging ahead of him. He planned to send out a request for the specific grant information before the day was done. He would talk to some of the county commissioners about the grant later that evening.

As he compiled this information, Johnson knew an ethical question would loom over his head.

“The reflex action of organizations is to find a scapegoat,” Johnson said. “My biggest concern is that [the reaction] gets focused on one county staffer, rather than on the procedures that allowed them to totally lose track of the expiration date on the grant.”

Johnson said it was his goal to minimize harm for the staffer, who may be thrown under the bus, while simultaneously doing his duty as a journalist.

“The county needs to be accountable for the money it’s using, and I have to be accountable to my readership,” Johnson said.

Johnson views journalism as a way to investigate and expose the practices of society’s most powerful. So, if a low level player is shunned and scapegoated, he would not be accomplishing his job.

“If this is something that has substantial negative impact on the population of senior citizens who would have used [the grant], then I’ll definitely just go ahead with it,” Johnson said. “This is an ethical thing to be weighed, not something that has a black and white answer.”

While I respect Johnson’s caution, I do feel that, in almost every circumstance, his obligation to the public should outweigh his want to protect a tax-funded public employee. Money matters. Each public employee is an investment by the citizens for an efficient government. Keeping this government accountable-whether it be the county’s grant procedure or an employee at the bottom of the bureaucratic totem pole- is why news matters.

As the situation now stands, I understand the delay in publishing a story. Knowing the background behind this grant and its expiration is key to reporting it to the readers. Despite the county’s budgetary constraints, Johnson said $10,000 was a drop in the bucket.

If Johnson were to rush out a story that painted the grant loss as a colossal failure, and then have it later revealed that the grant simply wasn’t needed, then he would be doing a disservice to both the county government and to his readers.

As a young paper with heavy competition, such failures could come with severe consequences.

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