Thursday, April 28, 2011

Conflict of Interest or Necessity of the Business?

By Natalie Knoth

The "Maybe It's Not So Obvious" story raises some tough questions. Though journalists might like to think of themselves as unbiased crusaders for timely and crucial information, the fact is that journalists are routinely swayed by advertisers, public-relations firms, and other organizations – if not out of a profit motive, certainly for convenience.

For example, from my experience working for magazines and newspapers, I've come to realize that the companies that really "put themselves out there" tend to get the most space in print simply because they send the press releases that pique writers' interests, they send the products for writers to try, and they submit story ideas about upcoming events. What's particularly troubling about this story is that a highly respected journalist like Walter Cronkite agreed to do a review that clearly presented a conflict of interest. If Cronkite blurred the line between editorial and advertising, it makes you ponder who else has. (Image courtesy

Are conflicts of interest a common occurrence?
I suspect that conflicts of interest occur all the time – even blatant incidents that could easily be revealed. For example, while this may be a bit of a tangent, but one renown fashion magazine printed a letter written by one of its own interns, a girl I know. She wrote about the magazine's coverage of a celebrity, I recall. It was inconceivable to me that such a well-established magazine would publish a letter from one of its own interns. I'm not sure if the girl offered to write the letter, or if the magazine approached her about writing one. Nonetheless, it's just sloppy to rely on a staffer's own thoughts for the letters section. You'd think that a magazine with such a large circulation would have no problem finding positive letters to fill it's feedback section, but maybe not.

OK to Pay?
Prior to reading "Checkbook Journalism Revisited," I had no idea that sometimes interview subjects, such as Lt. William Calley, are paid for interviews. I'm curious how often this practice occurs. On the surface, it appears to make sense because high-profile subjects tend to be busy, and thus to persuade them to appear in the pages of a magazine, they must be enticed with a paycheck. When a movie star, for example, is offered payment, I don't think this is a major cause for concern. Yet for a controversial government or public official, it certainly is because the subject will likely be motivated to respond according to the expectations of the publication.

I was particularly intrigued by this information in the reading: "In particular, I fear my students are less concerned with great stories than maintaining their journalistic virtue" (2). I wish Robert Boynton had provided examples to back this statement. While I know I definitely have not been 100 percent transparent with subjects, I can't recall any time I've outright lied to them.

Avoiding favoritism when testing products
I was more familiar with the issues raised in the "Bottled Prose" story. When working for a magazine, I was asked to sample everything from lipstick to bacon-filled chocolates to toothpaste. I recall the beauty and food departments making cold calls to companies requesting that they send products to be considered for upcoming issues. This helped ensure fairness, because some companies already sent products, while others do not. When the industry is struggling, I would expect that news outlets are especially likely to cross the editorial line into advertising or to publish news that has a conflict of interest.

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