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What we do when a publisher’s brother runs for office

The Hamburg Sun, which is owned by The Buffalo News, faces a touchy situation in its coverage of the Hamburg Town Board campaign this year.

One of the candidates is the brother of Sun Publisher Brian Connolly.

That kind of conflict isn’t unusual for news organizations closely tied to their communities. But it is a great case study in how we work hard to avoid such conflicts and to wall them off when they are unavoidable.

Beware: This story has a lot of Connollys.

When it became clear that Shawn Connolly would be an endorsed candidate for the Hamburg Town Board, The News’ Brian Connolly did exactly what he was supposed to – pulled himself out of any contact with the coverage, effective immediately. He sent a note to all emphasizing that Hamburg Sun Editor Mike Petro was in charge of the coverage, that Brian shouldn’t be told about stories, shouldn’t have involvement in decisions about coverage and that any questions that would normally go to him should be directed instead to me.

Our aim is to briefly remind readers of that in every story about the Town Board race.

All of this was second nature for Brian. Before moving to the business side of The News a year and a half ago, he spent his career in the newsroom, including seven years as managing editor of The News. For the past year and a half, besides being publisher of the five Sun weekly newspapers, he has been in charge of The News’ consumer revenue and driving the growth of our digital subscription business.

For the record, I am a Connelly, too, though Brian and I aren’t related (unless some enterprising genealogist finds a connection centuries ago in Ireland). We spell our names differently and we hadn’t met before I came to Buffalo almost seven years ago.

Brian Connolly’s news experience is useful because in the newsroom, we deal with these sorts of conflicts frequently. My wife and I are avid theatergoers, and she was excited when asked to join the board of the Irish Classical Theatre Company. That meant I removed myself from any involvement in coverage of the Irish Classical. She is off the board now, but I still stay away from the coverage.

From time to time, community groups want to recognize reporters who do great work. We always appreciate the thought, but in most cases we politely decline. We don’t want to create the appearance that future coverage of an organization or topic may be influenced by the recognition.

Avoiding even the appearance of conflicts is especially important in political coverage. Every election season, I remind the newsroom that every News journalist must go out of his or her way to avoid creating any perception of bias.

That applies to reporting, editing, headlines, story selection, use of photography and any other news judgment. But it also applies to conduct away from The News – no campaign contributions, bumper sticker, yard signs, campaign buttons or attending rallies. And it is especially important on social media, where even indirect things such as likes and retweets and profile pictures may communicate a stand.

In Hamburg, if either Connolly – Brian or Shawn – is unhappy with the coverage, they may do what any other reader may do: Call me and complain.

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