When the reporter has personal connections to the story


Philip Meyer (1987) called conflicts of interest the most visible ethical problem in journalism, in his text Ethical Journalism (p62). While certain conflicts of interest may seem obvious to observers—for example, when a journalist accepts payment or gifts from a subject—there is significant ambiguity in others to merit a fresh discussion. Ethics are not constant—they shift from person to person—and dominant ethical norms have changed significantly over time, including perceptions of that so-called “obvious” conflict inherent in accepting gifts. For this reason, journalists must constantly concern themselves with determining what conditions constitute a conflict of interest and avoiding them.

The Society of Professional Journalists calls journalists to act independently, the third principle in their Code of Ethics. “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to now,” it reads. But as Meyer points out, it is unrealistic to expect complete objectivity. “It assumes the man-from-Mars stance, the state of total detachment.” (Meyer, p71)

So what constitutes a conflict of interest for journalists? Is it purely financial interest in the outcome of a story? If your spouse or family member has an interest in the subject you are covering, is that a conflict? What if a friend does? And if objectivity is impossible, does this change our definition of conflicts of interest?

The Supreme Court of Canada’s 2009 ruling in Grant v. Torstar Corp. established a new defence against charges of defamation for journalists and other public communicators: responsible communication in the public interest. I propose that a key component of responsible communication requires journalists and media outlets to be aware of personal conflicts of interest, avoid them when possible and manage them effectively when they do arise.


DEFINING PERSONAL CONFLICTS OF INTEREST


Gene Foreman (2010) offers the following definition in his text The Ethical Journalist: “A conflict of interest is anything that could divert a journalist — or a news outlet — from performing the mission of providing reliable, unbiased information to the public” (p31).

Such a conflict can exist for the journalist in terms of his or her personal connection to a subject. It can also exist as an institutional conflict. According to Foreman, “news outlets are conflicted if they allow their commercial interests to interfere with gathering the news, such as killing a story under pressure from an advertiser” (p31). While it's important to acknowledge that conflicts of interest are not restricted to individuals, this page focuses only on personal conflicts.

So, under what circumstances could a journalist find herself in a situation where she was diverted from providing reliable, unbiased information to the public? Before examining those conditions, we must first consider the distinction between real and perceived conflicts of interest and their weight in the pursuit of independent journalism.

Real versus Perceived Conflicts

Real conflicts of interest, where journalists are corrupted by personal interest in the subject they are covering, are rare (Foreman, 2010, p138). More often, the public perceives a conflict of interest, with the consequence of mistrusting the journalist and/or media outlet that publishes or broadcasts it.

Some have argued that real conflicts are the only ones that journalists should be concerned about. Foreman quotes Jeffrey Olen, author of Ethics in Journalism (1988), who identifies the value in avoiding perceived conflicts, but argues that they are not morally unacceptable:
Conflict of interest problems for journalists can easily be overstated. The overstatement appears in the code, with the claim that journalists ought to avoid even the appearance of conflict. If media organizations wish to adopt that policy in order to project an enhanced image of trustworthiness to their audiences, that is one thing. But such a policy is not morally required. All that is morally required is that journalists, like anyone else, be trustworthy.

Others, however, believe that perceived and real conflicts should be given equal weight. The general argument is that perceived conflicts of interest have a severely detrimental effect on the public’s trust in the press. “There is no difference between real and perceived conflict; the one is as damaging as the other,” writes Bailey (quoted in Meyer, 1987, p71). Ultimately, it is in the public interest in a democracy to have journalists whom they can trust. “Today, even the appearance of being influenced may erode the public’s confidence in the journalist’s objectivity,” writes Dean Jobb (2006, p404). “The public—the people who rely on the reporter’s initiative and insight—must have confidence that journalists are not suppressing stories or pulling punches to protect their friends” (Jobb, p403).

Areas of Concern

The following list of areas of concern is not exhaustive and often pays disproportionate attention to the grey areas than the apparently black-and-white. But it is because those grey areas help build our understanding of contemporary ethical norms.

Gifts and income

“Any time anyone gives you money, you have a loyalty to them, and that’s a conflict,” says Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institutes (quoted in Foreman, p143). That includes both secondary income and gifts, whether they be monetary or of other value.

Although perhaps the most obvious danger zone for journalists today, it was not always the norm to refuse the gifts and freebies that are sometimes offered to journalists in the course of their work. Shifting perceptions on the acceptability of taking gifts from people and organizations connected to a journalist’s stories show the impermanence of ethical normals.

1950s Police beat reporter Peter Desbarats of the Montreal Gazette described a very different time:
[J]ournalistic ethics meant, more or less, whatever a journalist could get away with… I recall one of my editors assuring me that it was permissible to accept anything that one could eat or drink, but that cash payments should be avoided. This was considered to be unusually high-minded at the time (quoted in Jobb, p404).

But since the 1980s, rules against accepting freebies have been more ore less entrenched in journalistic code (Foreman, p32). In Making Ethical Decisions, Michael Josephson argues that the rationalization that accepting a freebie won’t affect your news coverage, “underestimates the subtle ways in which gratitude, friendship, and the anticipation of future favors affect judgment… Does the person providing you with the benefit believe that it will in no way affect your judgment? Would the personal still provide the benefit if you were in no position to help?” (Foreman, p32).

Participation in political and community affairs

The civic arena presents a particular dilemma for journalists, as a place where their democratic rights may come into conflict with their duties as journalists. Typically, journalists are expected to compromise those rights in favour of building a press that is free of (perceived) conflicts of interest. “As citizens, journalists have the right to vote and express opinions about events and issues that affect their lives. As journalists they are obligated to keep those opinions to themselves,” writes Philip Seib (1997, p33). He goes on to defend the compromise: “Although strict guidelines on whether and how journalists may express their opinions do intrude into their personal lives, the regulations are necessary to protect the integrity of journalism" (p34).

Most media codes of ethics permit their staff to vote, but activities beyond that, such as donating to or otherwise advocating for politicians, is often taboo (Wilson, 2010). However, journalists regularly break these “rules.” In the United States, 235 self-identified journalists and news organization staff donated more than $469,000 to federal political candidates, committees and parties during the 2010 election cycle (Wilson). Although an ASNE poll determined that journalists perceive political connections a “generally bad” conflict of interest (Meyer, p73) these donations suggest nuances in opinion.

For those who believe that real (as opposed to perceived) conflicts of interest are the only significant ones, political contributions are just a public display of pre-existing bias. Christopher Hayes, the Washington D.C. editor of The Nation, was one of the political donors mentioned above. Although he said he would not normally contribute to a political campaign, he made an exception when his friend ran in an Alabama congressional race. “Whatever threat of conflict is already there. It seems like the least of it to throw an extra $250 on top of it, he told Opensecrets.org. He also said his donation would ethically eliminate him from covering anything related to the race (Wilson, 2010).

Others believe that political engagement only constitutes a conflict of interest for reporters covering a political beat. “Just because I am a reporter doesn’t mean I give up my rights,” Paul Tharp of the New York Post told Opensecrets.org. “I have an interest in public service, but no politics. I cover business.” (Wilson, 2010).

Real conflicts arise when journalists receive something in exchange for their contribution, such as giving those journalists more interviews. “If you were paying for access,” Hayes told Opensecrets.org, “that would be a scandal.” (Wilson, 2010).

In terms of community participation, journalists broadly maintain the right to religious observation and other community engagement roles (Foreman, p146). But the line is unclear where acceptable engagement ends. If you are allowed to coach a baseball team, are you also allowed to fight against a municipal movement to replace the baseball diamond with a condo?

Affinity for a subject/Covering a beat

In a survey by the American Society of News Editors about the relative significance of various areas of conflict of interest, journalists tended to agree that affinity for a subject helps more than it hurts (Meyer, p73). In other words, for example, they thought it would be a positive thing to have a reporter with a law degree covering the courts. While affinity for a subject does not seem to constitute a conflict of interest in and of itself, however, the process of developing that affinity may hold certain traps.

Journalists regularly develop an affinity for the subject of their beat. Freelance journalist Frances Bula addressed this in a discussion on CBC Radio’s The Current about coverage of the 2010 Olympic Games. “We all live with conflict of interest all the time. Potentially, anybody who covers a beat gets involved in that kind of thing” (quoted by Ray, 2010). Bula was responding to a column written by Stephen Ward. This issue was whether or not Canadian journalists were maintaining their commitment to independence and being critical of the event. Ward responded to Bula’s statement in the comments section of J-Source.ca, after an excerpt of Bula’s interview on The Current was posted online. “If we insist, as journalists, on impartiality in reporting on political stories, why is it different with the Olympics?” In this case, enthusiasm for a subject may have prevented journalists from practicing independent reporting.

Relationship with Sources

In a more straightforward case, covering a beat can cause a reporter to develop an interest in the success of the sources they have developed there. The New York Times code of ethics addresses this:
Cultivating sources is an essential skill, often practiced more effectively in informal settings outside of normal business hours. Yet staff members, especially those assigned to beats, must be aware that personal relationships with news sources can erode into favoritism, in fact or appearance.
Foreman (2010) suggests that a good “acid test” for testing relationships with sources is for journalists to maintain a good working relationship with both parties in a dispute.
Most codes of ethics recommend against reporting on family and friends.

Inherent bias

Factors such as geographical location, gender and race can skew the way that journalists interpret information and reach conclusions about information. Journalists have received criticism for the ways that such inherent biases have become manifest in their work product.

For example, Philip Seib (1997) pointed to the way that class biases may creep into news coverage. This has become more of a danger with the growing celebrity of some journalist. While many journalists make relatively meager livings, others have been criticized for elitism and partisanship, reflecting a disconnect from their audience, he writes (p32).

He gives the example of the way the press treated Paula Jones and Anita Hall. Both alleged sexual misconduct on the parts of public figures (Jones against president Bill Clinton, Hill against Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas). But Yale-educated law professor Hill’s allegations received widespread coverage, while Jones was ridiculed in the press (Seib, p33). Seib suggests that Jones may have been ignored because of her lower class origins.

Does this constitute a conflict of interest? While inherent bias may skew a journalist’s coverage of a story, classifying this as a conflict of interest would mean that almost every journalist’s report involves a conflict of interest. Still, it’s important to be aware of such grey areas in the space between impossible objectivity and conflicts of interest.

LEGAL CONSIDERATIONS: Malice

While the new defence of responsible communication in the public interest makes no direct mention of personal conflicts of interest, it could be reasonably attached to discussions of malice. One can imagine how certain areas for potential conflicts of interest could be construed as malice — for example, writing a story on a source with whom you have a conflict. In Canadian defamation law, proof of malice can defeat the major defences available to defendants, including fair comment (Grant v. Torstar, para 23), qualified privilege (para 30) and the new defence. The new defence demands a degree of responsible communication that, if satisfied, would preclude malice. According to the judgment, “a defendant who has acted with malice in publishing defamatory allegations has by definition not acted responsibly.” (para 125). For legal as well as ethical reasons, it is therefore important to manage conflicts of interest appropriately and responsibly.

MANAGING CONFLICTS OF INTEREST

Managing conflicts of interest effectively will be essentially not only to maintaining journalistic integrity, but in legal defences against malice. This is by no means a prescriptive or exhaustive list, but is intended only to shed light on some of the options available to journalists and media organizations.

Transparency
Disclosure is the greatest tool against unavoidable conflicts of interest, especially in terms of minimizing perceived conflicts of interest. Such conflicts may be inconsequential, but if discovered by the public, be enough to damage the journalist’s credibility. “This brief mention tells the audience, ‘We’re going to be fair in how we cover [this subject], but we’re informing you of the association so that you can be the judge” (Foreman, p141).

Being clear with the audience about conflicts of interest can mitigate the problem personally and publicly. Meyer says that after disclosure, sometimes the public can be okay with conflict. He gives the example of Les Carpenter’s column, which peaked in popularity when his wife worked in the White House for the First Lady. “Some editors and readers may have thought the tie would give her husband insight or gossip not available to less well-connected writers” (p75).

New standards of transparency have been ushered in through the emergence of an era of online journalism. Many journalists feel they can create transparency through their blogs, NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard told journalism and communications students at the Utah State University. She said that that the best blogs are blogs that create a personal connection between the reader and the author, reports the Utah Statesman (Smith, 2010). William Powers of the National Journal seemed to agree, by writing that blogging, podcasting and citizen journalism have changed the game. “The curtain has been pulled back, revealing actual human beings. To the extent that media outlets deny this by pretending that their employees have no views on politics and other topics – or that those views don’t influence coverage – they come off as charlatans" (quoted in Foreman, p137). The Internet has forced the public to face their reporters has human beings, incapable of objectivity. If Shepard and Powers are right, then declaring backgrounds and biases upfront could allow journalists to pursue their interests to no limit—including political engagement, for example—so long as they are honest with the public.

There are certain problems associated with disclosure, however. Edward Wasserman (2010) writes that disclosure is “rarely a satisfactory response" (p258). Typically, he says, the disclosure isn’t thorough enough to be meaningful. For example, disclosing that you are writing about someone for whom you used to work does not tell your audience what your relationship was really like and what kind of slant it might have on your writing.

Pluralism
Another way to protect the public from the personal conflicts of journalists is through pluralism. That means providing multiple opinions and perspectives on important issues, so as not to corrupt representation of that issue because of one reporter’s negligence. Meyer argues that it is the duty of editors “to keep the pluralist pot bubbling by attending to the variety of viewpoints and interest represented in their spaces" (p75).


Other Strategies for managing endemic conflicts (Edward Wasserman)
Edward Wasserman recommends five strategies for managing endemic conflicts of interest—those conflicts that arise from fundamental journalistic processes and are most difficult to avoid. They are:

Foster In-House Discourse
In-house discourse encourages self-awareness and self-criticism on the parts of journalism. Wasserman suggests a good question to ask is, “What are the best stories you know about but cannot write? Why not?” (p259).

Provide Internal Oversight
This involves examining the position and power of the public editor. Strong public editors look for ways that institutional and commercial incentives shape coverage. “Endemic conflicts require vigilance and a determination to guard against their corrupting coverage to the determent of the public need for significant information,” Wasserman writes (p259).

Segregate Functions
While this strategy is targeted more at institutional conflicts of interest, it is certainly relevant individual editors. Wasserman suggests resegregating news from commerce, to avoid giving senior editors at news organizations incentives based on revenue enhancement rather than journalistic success (p259).

Superintend Duties
Wasserman suggests rotating staff regularly and avoiding fixed beats, for the potential conflicts of interest that could grow (see Affinity for a subject/covering a beat, above). “Fixed beats should be understood as a potential boon to expertise but a constant threat to reportorial independence and an incubator for endemic conflicts,” he writes (p260).

Widen Ombudsmanship
Wasserman argues that expanding the ombudsman role to an in-house panel of both journalists and representatives from the audience would help mitigate conflicts of interest (p260).









WORKS CITED

Foreman, G. (2010). The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Pursuit of News. Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

Grant v Torstar 2009 SCC 61. (2009). The Supreme Court of Canada. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 from http://csc.lexum.umontreal.ca/en/2009/2009scc61/2009scc61.html

Jobb, D. (2006). Media Law for Canadian Journalists. Toronto: Emond Montgomery.

Meyer, P. (1987). Ethical Journalism: A Guide for Students, Practitioners and Consumers. New York: Longman.

The New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism. (2005). The New York Times Company. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 from http://www.nytco.com/company-properties-times-coe.html.

Ray, R. (2010, Feb. 26). The Current: Has Critical Journalism Gone Missing in Action? J-Source.ca. Retrieved from http://www.j-source.ca/english_new/detail.php?id=4835

Seib, P. (1997). Journalism Ethics. New York: Harcourt Brace College Publishers.

Smith, D. (2010, Oct. 6). Reporter addresses issue of skewed web content. The Utah Statesman. Retrieved from http://www.usustatesman.com/reporter-addresses-issue-of-skewed-web-content-1.2356349

SPJ Code of Ethics. (1996-2010). The Society of Professional Journalists. Retrieved Oct. 24, 2010 from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Wasserman, E. (2010). A Robust Future for Conflict of Interest. In C. Meyer (Ed.) Journalism Ethics. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

Wilson, M. R. (2010, Sept. 14). Journalists, Media Professionals Donating Frequently to Federal Political Candidates this Election Cycle. Opensecrets.org. Retrieved from www.opensecrets.org/news/2010/09/media-professionals-and-journalists-donate.html



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