The news media are not out of line when reporting on some aspects of a politician's private life, a panel of journalists and public officials agreed Saturday.
Other parts of a public figure's life, however, should be out of bounds for the media, depending on the person's place in the public eye.Professional and student journalists also were told that they should be careful when reporting on poll results, lest they promulgate misinterpretations of data.
The discussions Saturday were part of the Region 9 annual meeting of the Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi. The region covers Utah, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and El Paso, Texas.
"It just seems like public officials have to expect that the harsh spotlight of public inquiry is going to shine on them," said Robert Rose, a former Wyoming Supreme Court chief justice.
He said judges should be held to the same level of scrutiny as other public officials.
Rep. Richard Cheney, R-Wyo., said publication of the fact that Republican presidential candidate Pat Robertson's wife was pregnant before the two were married is a gray area possibly not out of line because Robertson preaches morality and should not try to hold others up to a standard he does not follow himself.
A news reporter's research into the video checkout history of former U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork was out of line, Cheney said.
"You can't pursue tantalizing tidbits about public officials just because they are tantalizing tidbits," Cheney said. The information should have something to do with the job.
"There are certain things that might be fair game when you're covering a president or potential presidential candidate that simply might not be when you're covering a local official."
Salt Lake Tribune reporter Paul Rolly said, however, that local officials' actions can affect the public. He cited the Salt Lake County attorney's office, where the county paid thousands of dollars of taxpayers' money in a settlement with a secretary who said former County Attorney Ted Cannon treated her improperly.
Scott Killgore, news director for KIMN Radio in Denver, said media treatment of former Democratic presidential candidate Gary Hart was appropriate except in some of the stakeout activities, including of his home in Troublesome Gulch, outside Denver. That unfairly added strain to Hart's wife, who already was a victim.
A separate panel at the journalists' meeting rebutted claims that publishing polls lead to a bandwagon effect that dooms the candidate trailing in polls.
If the claim were true, Sen. Robert Dole would have won the Republican presidential primary in New Hampshire this year and Thomas E. Dewey would have defeated President Truman in 1948, said Dan Jones, who conducts polls for the Deseret News and KSL-TV.
Jones said a candidate far behind in polls may be indirectly harmed, as campaign contributions are harder to get.
Ken Campbell, editor of the Scottsbluff (Neb.) Star-Herald, warned that writers of poll stories should be familiar with statistics. Otherwise, they may extrapolate incorrect assumptions.
For example, a survey of 400 people has a possible margin of error of 5 percent. That is a statistically good poll.
But if 40 percent of those polled say they are Democrats, and the people who say they are Democrats support candidate A, no conclusion should be drawn, because only 160 Democrats were surveyed, and that is not a large enough sample for an acceptable margin of error.
So, when a campaign releases results of a poll, a political writer should ask for more information. "It may be the intent of the people who hand you the press release to exaggerate the poll," Campbell said.
Pollsters are generally honest, but they hand the information over to their clients, who disseminate it how they wish, he said.