Statement about editorial writer’s conflict of interest

The Virginia Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists expresses deep concerns over a report that a newspaper columnist received payments from Dominion Energy while writing unsigned editorials praising the electric utility and natural gas company.

VPM, the Richmond-based public media organization, reported on Sept. 29 that Dominion paid Gordon Morse more than $60,000 annually as an executive speechwriter since 2017. During that time, as a columnist for The Virginian-Pilot and the Newport News Daily Press, Morse wrote unsigned editorials that lauded or defended Dominion, VPM said.

The SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter views Morse’s conduct — writing pro-Dominion editorials for the Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press while employed by Dominion — as a conflict of interest and a breach of journalistic ethics. According to the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” Such conflicts undermine the trust and confidence that readers have not only in journalists but also in the news organizations they work for. 

VPM noted that The Virginian-Pilot and Daily Press last year stopped assigning Dominion-related editorials to Morse after learning of his speech writing contract for the company.

(Under the SPJ Code of Ethics, if a conflict is unavoidable, journalists at least should disclose it. In that spirit, we note that Elliott Robinson, a member of the board of directors of the SPJ Virginia Pro Chapter, is VPM’s news director. He abstained from involvement in this statement.)

Note to news organizations’ editorial boards: Let us know at if you would like an expanded commentary on this issue for publication or broadcast. Upon request, we’d be happy to produce an opinion piece about journalistic ethics and this particular incident.

Published by SPJ Virginia Pro

SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry through the daily work of its nearly 10,000 members; works to inspire and educate current and future journalists through professional development; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press through its advocacy efforts.

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