Monday, September 23, 2013

The Whens and Whys of Conflicts of Interest: or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Give Full Disclosure

Ross Dickerhoof

“Bias” is a scary word for a lot of people, and it’s not hard to understand why. Bias is that thing that ruins scientific experiments by removing objectivity from the equation. It’s the thing that people try to accuse you of in arguments to try and shut you down completely in one fell swoop. But really, we needn’t be so terrified of bias or conflicts of interest: denying that they exist at all would be a lie, both to ourselves and to the reading public.

Defining “Conflicts of Interest”
Before I get into discussing the ins and outs of dealing with conflicts of interest in one’s journalistic career, it’s important that I give a concrete definition of “conflict of interest” to further define any hypothetical circumstances. By my definition (similar to the one given in the “Common Ethical Issues in Public Relations” article), a conflict of interest is any circumstance in which the particulars of the situation make it difficult for the journalist to be impartial on the subject they’re writing about, be it public relations or breaking news.

For instance, if a journalist were given the task of interviewing members of a charity organization that had recently been accused of fraud, but they have a family member who works with that charity organization, then this would create a conflict of interest. The journalist would have too many preconceived notions of what the organization is like to write an unbiased piece on the scandal.

Exceptions to the Rule
Now, while I realize that saying we shouldn’t worry about conflicts of interest too much when there is such a huge movement to wipe them out is a very radical statement to make, there are obviously exceptions to this rule.

Take the case of something like the recent violence againstgays in Russia, for example. Since this is a news story that many, many people have a vested interest in, the fact that violence against a minority group is never okay makes this story a bit more black and white than usual and it would be very easy to offend readers and therefore lose readership with a slanted article. It is very important that we keep a “strictly facts” approach when reporting on it. In general, “touchier” stories should be handled with grace, sensitivity and as much objectivity as possible.

Additionally, if money changes hands during an interview, both the information given and the journalist’s credibility immediately become suspect. If an interview subject is getting paid, they could say pretty much anything they wanted, as long as they got the money. What’s to stop them from straight-up lying to the interviewer?

The Upshot of it All
Now that I’ve laid out the potential exceptions to my argument, let’s examine the downsides that would come from trying to avoid bias and conflicts of interest completely.

As discussed in part four of MaryAnn Johanson’s critic“minifesto,” “any critic who says he isn’t biased is lying, or badly lacking in self-awareness.” By saying that we don’t have any sort of personal interest in the thing we’re writing about, we’re being dishonest not only to ourselves, but our audience. We can’t constantly be removed from the world; our job is to be immersed in it.

Instead, we need to be up front about our biases. By doing this, we can create a dialogue with our readers (the news media isn’t a monologue anymore, after all), and thereby make the writing more engaging and draw in a larger audience. Multiple writers could write from multiple perspectives on a topic, if need be, which would give another reason to create more content.

Lastly, being up front about our biases establishes us as normal humans in the eyes of the readers, as well. By developing an engaging and distinctive voice through our biases, we can become more relevant to the public opinion, whether they agree with us or not.

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