Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Crossing the Lines of Conflict

Katie Hendershot

Good sources are key to any good journalistic career. The basis of any story starts with a good source who is willing to talk, which takes a lot of trust on his or her end. Journalists already are in hot water with public trust.

When working with sources, especially about sensitive topics, they tend to get a little iffy when talking. They’re worried about having their words twisted, so trust is a huge factor in any source’s decision to talk to a journalist.

Often that turns into a friendly relationship between journalists and their sources. This practice of becoming too friendly with sources happens even more with local news. In the article “A Journalist Breaks the Golden Rule," Anna Song, a reporter with KATU-TV, offered a eulogy at the memorial service of two girls who were kidnapped and murdered in the station’s coverage area. Song had covered the kidnappings.

In this instance, Song seems to have overstepped her bounds, but as the article pointed out, those above her at the station should have known better and encouraged her to turn down the opportunity. It becomes even muddier because her station was recording the service. That’s clearly a conflict of interest on more than one count.

The thing about a beat and local news coverage is that you can get too cozy and start treating sources like friends. That destroys credibility.

Bending over backwards to keep sources happy happens on all levels and often runs rampant in areas that are considered “soft news.”

Sports news can be especially guilty of this conflict of interest. Recently, ESPN found itself under scrutiny because it is removing its name from a documentary that could portray the NFL in a bad light. The documentary is about the NFL’s response to head injuries.

Though ESPN is denying the allegations, ESPN is noted for doing its best to keep the NFL happy because they rely on the benefits of the close relationship. ESPN’s journalistic principles come into question with this instance. They have a responsibility to report the truth and to act independently. 

Photo from http://arstechnica.com

In the Society of Professional Journalists’s code of ethics, it clearly says, “deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.” The NFL clearly has a special interest in the coverage ESPN provides, therefore there should be no preferential treatment.

If ESPN considers itself more of a news organization than an entertainment company, it is crucial that the lines become more clearly defined.


Accepting gifts in return for favorable coverage is a clear violation of the code of ethics, yet so often it’s all over the news. Sometimes, it’s more discreet and sometimes it might not seem like much of a big deal. But as Melanie Lim of Sun Star, a news organization in the Philippines, notes, it often starts small and escalates.

Whether it’s outright bribery or just a small gift from a subject of a story, it’s a conflict of interest. It is a journalist’s job to be objective and once gifts have been exchanged, it all becomes cloudy and coverage is compromised.

For critics, that is a particularly strong conflict. As is the case in the article, “Bottle Prose: The Ethical Paradox of the Wine Press," critics are given special accommodations from wineries. According to the article, “Critics Sound Off on the Ethics of Music Journalism,” it’s reported that music critics also often take bribes for their reporting.

Critics are supposed to be working to help readers make informed decisions. If they’re being swayed due to a conflict of interest, then their opinions can’t really be trusted. A consumer’s time and money is valuable, so when critics report about something, they’re being trusted to provide fair and accurate information.

Conflicts of interest often run rampant in journalism and harm the reliability of news organizations.

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