Guidelines deal with employees’ personal political activities

Q: To guard a newspaper’s reputation for impartiality, is there not some kind of unspoken “industry understanding” that newspaper employees should follow regarding political activities? I have an opening for a reporter and I want to screen applicants to make sure they can keep their political proclivities to themselves.

A: Codes of ethics and standards for professional conduct for various news organizations are cataloged at asne.org, the American Society of News Editors website. In the left-hand sidebar you can find, for example, this Gannett Suburban Newspapers page containing guidelines under the heading, Political Activities:

1. Because politics and government are staples of our news coverage, you may not hold office or work for a political party, candidate or government agency.

2. You may not affix bumper stickers and other political or special-interest labels to your personal vehicle or to newspaper property, nor wear political or special-interest buttons that may identify you with a cause.

3. You may not march in special-interest or political demonstrations; participate in rallies; speak out at public meetings; make monetary contributions to political candidates, PACs or special-interest groups; or engage in other activities in support of a cause or group that would raise questions about the newspaper’s impartiality.

4. You are encouraged to vote in all general elections and free to enroll in a political party for purposes of voting in a primary. However, be aware that party affiliations are matters of public record and could be used to challenge your impartiality.

Q: Can a member of the media film or take pictures inside a polling location? The other day at our county commissioners’ court meeting the election administrator said a television reporter was kicked out of a voting location while trying to report on the election. I called the news channel and they didn’t know anything about it.

A: Texas’ chief elections officer, the secretary of state, answers the question for us: “No one may be permitted to be inside the polling place unless specifically authorized by law. [Election Code Sec. 61.001] Election officers other than the precinct election judge and clerks, party officials, or members of the media are not permitted to be in the polling place unless they are voting or fall into one of the other groups of persons listed above, who are permitted to be in the polling place. Loitering within 100 feet of an outside door through which a voter may enter during the voting period is prohibited. [Election Code Sec. 61.003]. Source: http://www.sos.state.tx.us/elections/forms/election_judges_handbook.pdf

Election judges reportedly have accused reporters of loitering and ordered them outside the 100-foot line. Telephoto lenses make distances practically immaterial but most people expect privacy when entering and leaving polls and such expectations should be honored. Asking permission before snapping a photo can save you a lot of grief. Of course, a prospective human subject for a news photo might come up to you saying something like, “Hey you, reporter, I want my picture in the paper and make sure you  get these campaign signs in the frame!”

Q: Does HIPAA place a ban on the release of patient condition information by a hospital? I was at a forum recently where an out-of-state lecturer said that under no conditions, pursuant to HIPAA, may a hospital release anything about a patient.

A: Please bookmark and refer to this set of guidelines posted by the Office of the Texas Attorney General: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/consumer/hipaa.shtml.

Back in 2003 Texas Press Association published a media lawyer’s discourse on HIPAA and here are three potentially light-shedding paragraphs from it:

“Under HIPAA most medical information is restricted from disclosure, although hospitals can confirm the presence of a patient and a one-word statement of condition, but only if the patient has not opted out of the directory and only if the reporter already knows the patient’s name. …

“These restrictions do not prevent reporters from asking questions, but you can expect the hospital administrators to be fairly closed-lipped. HIPAA will make it much more difficult for hospital and medical personnel to post lists of injured persons in a public place during an emergency or release lists of admitted persons unless proper notification and consent where necessary had been obtained.

“HIPAA does not control or affect police or fire departments. If they have information concerning the medical condition, they can be used as a source. Patients or their parents or guardians or legal representatives also can consent to release information.”

Q: Many years ago I worked in Laredo and still have in my possession a Handbook on Media Law  in Texas, Spring 2000 edition, a pocket-sized volume containing the Texas Public Information Act and the Texas Open Meetings Act. I’d like to know if there is  a more recent edition as I am interested in purchasing this handbook for my staff.

A: Your edition of the Handbook on Media Law in Texas was the last edition printed. Today, we recommend the Texas Attorney General’s 2014 Open Meetings Act Handbook and 2014 Public Information Act Handbook, both available via this link: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open/publications_og.shtml

It’s also good for reporters and editors to take the AG’s free open government training, here: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open/og_training.shtml

While you’re at it, check out this link to open government 2013 legislative updates: https://www.texasattorneygeneral.gov/open/legupdates.shtml

And, Texas Press Association offers online access to Law and The Media in Texas by David McHam. Click Law & Media under the Publications tab at texaspress.com.

Last but not least, membership in Freedom of Information Foundation of Texas, www.foift.org, would yield tremendous benefits for your newspaper’s editors and reporters. For information, contact FOIFT Executive Director Kelley Shannon at (512) 377-1575.