It’s a page-one story in my local newspaper today, but it’s playing out in dozens of communities around the country. It’s the debate over casino gambling, and it presents a real ethical dilemma for PR professionals who promote it. Or at least it should.
The story in my area involves the quaint village of Canal Fulton, Ohio, located along the historic Ohio & Erie Canal. Some of the economic development forces there favor a proposal from Oklahoma’s Eastern Shawnee tribe to build a mini-Las Vegas on 50 acres just outside of town. While the State of Ohio officially opposes the project, the tribe seems ready to take on the governor and anyone else who gets in the way.
The last time Ohioans voted on casino gaming, the ballot initiative lost in ALL 88 counties. But that was before casinos in Canada gained popularity and before legalized gambling cropped up in nearly every state bordering Ohio.
Thanks to an aggressive publicity effort from the pro-gambling forces, folks here are well aware of the millions in entertainment dollars leaving the state — and thousands of casino workers paying taxes elsewhere. Open casinos here and you’ll keep a good bit of that “wealth” at home, they say. A compelling argument, and not that tough to promote if you’re a PR pro worth a lick.
What the promoters don’t tell you about gambling is the story of its negative effects. So a tip of the hat to Beacon Journal writer Kymberli Hagelberg for making sure her story was a balanced one. She took time to talk with opponents of the casino and turned up these nuggets for her story:
- Communities with casinos “experienced sharp increases in bankruptcy, delinquent loan payments, bad checks, prostitution and robbery.”
- Casinos can also hurt existing local businesses, since the resorts (especially the Indian casinos) generally offer discounted food, drink, gasoline and cigarettes.
- One of the major opponents of the Canal Fulton project cited data from Atlantic City that reveals significant gambling addiction among teens and a high rate of suicide among compulsive gamblers.
To no one’s surprise, the pro gambling forces challenge this data. As they should. Both sides twist the facts to suit their needs — not unlike a political campaign. It gets downright sleazy.
The Ohio Roundtable, a conservative think tank that mixes right-wing positions with a dose of Almighty God, tells us how the gaming industry will destroy our lives. But the noise from the other side can be just as loud. And it wouldn’t be a debate if one side didn’t also attack the personal credibility of the other.
To the media’s credit, they’ve tried to give a balanced view. And that includes the small local papers like the Independent caught in the middle of the controversy.
The Ethical Dilemma
Ethicist Rush Kidder would call it a classic “individual vs. community” dilemma. It is right to protect an individual’s access to free enterprise (the developers) and the individual’s access to entertainment (the gamers). It is also right for the opponents of gaming to defend the integrity of their communities and to fight to protect citizens from the harm gambling may bring.
In the end, (and I’m guessing based on years of following Kidder’s thinking), I believe Kidder would side with the opponents of gambling in this case, placing the needs of community ahead of those of the individual. It’s a utilitarian argument that has served democracy well. But it butts up against a libertarian argument that also lies at the foundation of American freedom.
No easy answers here. But lots of questions for those who care about ethics and enjoy the debates that come with it.
So here’s the question for us: If the Eastern Shawnee tribe approached you with a bag full of money, would you — as a PR professional — take their account? I hope the students in my Wednesday Ethics & Issues class are reading this. It’s my discussion opener this week.
Note: If you care about these kinds of debates, spend some time on the website of Kidder’s Institute for Global Ethics.