The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Monday December 6th

Providing the rationale for a complex newsroom decision

My words shouldn't be filling this space. Those of you who are regular readers of Robin Sinhababu's Tuesday column likely have noted that already.

But I recently made the decision to terminate Sinhababu's tenure as a columnist for The Daily Tar Heel, and I owe our readers an explanation.

The paper's Conflict of Interest Policy has been a guiding document for all DTH staff members, from the newest hire to the most seasoned member of the paper's management team, since time immemorial.

A fundamental element of this policy, the first of 12 points included in the document this year, addresses participation in student government.

From the start, it's plainly worded: "No staff member may participate on any of student government's three branches or in any administrative capacity."

Though the policy also covers staff participation in news events, membership in other campus groups and behavior during student elections, it is the rule relating to student government that I've recently had to act upon.

Sinhababu is involved with the Renewable Energy Special Projects Committee, a group created by Student Congress legislation. At tonight's meeting of Student Congress, his appointment to the position of chairman of this committee is up for approval.

I was left in the dark about this involvement, unaware of it until a staff member brought a Congress agenda with Sinhababu's name on it to my attention.

In response, I was angry, frustrated and saddened. Angry that a columnist who had sat in on discussions of the Conflict of Interest Policy hadn't thought to ask me if his dual commitments were an issue. Frustrated that I didn't know every involvement of staff members of this paper. And saddened that I was going to have to fire someone for a mistake that could have been so easily averted.

The member of the DTH's staff responsible for hiring Sinhababu and for evaluating his application, which did reveal his conflict of interest, has been temporarily suspended from the newsroom. Responsibility for the violation was shared, so punishment for it should also be.

Our policy is clear.

The reasons backing it are often hard for those who are not on staff to understand, and those of us who do work here sometimes inwardly rail against them.

But in order to be professional and to accord student government the most respect and fairest coverage we possibly can, we must continue to enforce this separation. A responsible community newspaper covering local government would not permit a member of that governing body to become a regular staff member of that publication.

Likewise, the DTH cannot allow a member of student government, regardless of rank or activity, to act as a member of the paper's staff, even in the capacity of a columnist.

We cannot expect to be unbiased and to strive for objectivity if we do not draw these lines.

I've heard our stance on conflicts of interest termed "fascist," and I can understand how someone who has not studied the history of the paper or who does not work here for an unreasonable number of hours each week could term it so.

But think back a few months to the clamor over a student body president election gone haywire, recall the successes and mistakes of the DTH at that time, and you'll begin to understand the importance of our separation from a governing body for which we have sole coverage responsibility.

What happened last year was not without precedent, and I expect that, during this and future years, the paper will have the chance to cover exciting and complicated occurrences relating to both small and large positions and events in student government.

And we have to pave the way for the best relations possible, for a relationship of mutual respect, for the possibility of understanding.

The DTH can't cede a staff position to a member of student government - we can't make an exception for a columnist whose involvement has come to light and heightened during the semester.

We also cannot make allowances for staff members who do not understand or follow a policy made clear to them at the time of their orientation and repeated to them as they climb the ranks of editorship.

I regret that Sinhababu will no longer write for us, and I wish him the best of luck in his new position.

And I hope that, as readers, you can understand and respect my decision, even though you might choose to disagree.

Contact Michelle Jarboe, DTH editor, at mjarboe@email.unc.edu.

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