Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Conflict of Interest and Breaching Ethical Standards

Written by Amanda Weisbrod

It's difficult to completely avoid conflict of interest. It's wrong to expect a journalist to leave all of their personal beliefs at the door of the newsroom, or expect them to not have any opinions or bias about social issues at all. For example, I'm very passionate about women's rights. If my future employer expected me to keep all of my emotion out of a story about gender equality, I would have a very hard time separating my beliefs from the news.

If such a situation arises, however, it is not only the duty, but also the responsibility of the journalist to give full disclosure to their employer about their conflict of interest, as outlined in PRSA's "take on conflict of interest" in Common Ethical Issues in Public Relations. 

Although avoiding conflict entirely may be impossible, it is necessary to try in order to gain and hold the trust of the public, sources, clients, employers and general enjoyers of the news. For if this trust is broken, the news organization is no longer reputable, and will potentially fail if conflicts in interest continue to occur.

On the other side of the spectrum, purposely violating ethical standards of conflict of interest will make the public distrust journalists and news organizations as a whole. By violating these standards, a news outlet could potentially tarnish the reputation of journalists as a whole.

Rupert Murdoch - source: www.epictimes.com
Paying the Price of Unethical Decisions
One example is Rupert Murdoch's reoccurring case of conflict of interest involving The Sun and News Corps. Because he expressed that the only way to find information about certain topics is to pay of public officials, he set a terrible example and standard for journalists everywhere. According to the Columbia Journalism Review's article titled Checkbook Journalism's Slippery Slope, paying off public officials for insider information like Murdoch did, "has the potential to corrupt the whole journalist/source relationship."

In JOUR3200 Media Ethics, we discussed the public's opinion on the ethical standards of journalists as a whole. Around 40% of the people surveyed agreed that journalism is one of the most unethical professions one could have. This is more than likely caused by multiple, reoccurring violations in media ethical standards, such as conflict of interest. It is important to note that conflict of interest does not only ruin the relationship between a journalist and their sources.

Truth and Independence
Perhaps the biggest issue of conflict of interest is the disruption of the core values of journalism: independence and truth-telling. For example, in American Journalism Review's article, Maybe It's Not So Obvious, Jeff Derderian, reporter for WPRI-TV, praised a club in Rhode Island on the air, when all of a sudden, the establishment caught fire. It came to light that Derderian was actually a co-owner of the club, and was potentially using his influence as a reporter to promote his business. He violated independence because he was financially invested in the night club; he disregarded truth-telling by inserting his bias, and shedding a positive light on the night club.

Even though conflict of interest may never be completely unavoidable, it is extremely important that each and every journalist try their hardest to comply to this rule. Otherwise, news organizations as a whole will continue to slide down the slippery slope of unethical decisions.

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