Monday, September 26, 2016

Conflicts of Interest: Persistent and Misunderstood

Russ Heltman

Journalism has long had problems with its ethical standards and trustworthiness within the community, and conflicts of interest have played a large part in that discontent. These issues come in many forms and are often treated with volatile levels of consequence, making it difficult to define these things and identify them before they can be called out by the public or other journalistic entities.
Persistent Problem
Most journalists, and much of the general public, seem to know that conflicts of interests are ethical problems, but they continue to show up time and again. A lot of this has to do with a lack of barriers and strict codes in place at these institutions to keep their employees from crossing the line.
Places like CNN and LIN TV have policies and codes in place that talk about conflicts, but they don’t lay them out clearly for their employees.
Its not all on the institutions to try and stop this, journalists also need to police themselves by stepping back and thinking whether the action they are committing is justified or immoral.
Checkbook Journalism
One of the biggest issues facing journalism is the increasing act of paying sources for information to break a story.
This often starts with paying regular sources, and festers into buying information from public officials.
Many institutions deplore this type of bribery, but when a small few, such as The Sun, National Enquirer, and Intouch, not only allow the behavior, but go on record to defend it, the entire industry looks bad, and it brings a whole new set of rules to the table in terms of the relationship between reporters and their sources.
When money is brought into the equation a source will follow it and give the story to whomever pays the most, and those willing to pay the most often don’t take the story and publish it with the utmost credibility.
Places like The Sun and The National Enquirer take their sources' information and immediately start down a slippery slope away from the truth. This type of "checkbook journalism" promotes a first is best mentality that has come back to bite the industry time after time.
There can be instances when paying sources is appropriate, such as The Telegraph piece about the expanses scandal in British parliament, but that story brought a lot of corruption to light and bettered the public.
Media Conflicts
A whole other level of problems emerge when public figures switch jobs to the private sector and take high ranking positions in media companies.
This has been seen with former officials from Obama’s administration joining the media world, and vice versa. It becomes increasingly difficult for the media as a whole to complete their role as government watchdogs when so many members have experience in both the public and private sector.
On top of that, many media employees have spouses who are public figures- they can’t be expected, nor trusted to report on their spouse truthfully because they have commitments to both sides.
The media’s job is to police the government, and, in today’s industry, that looks more difficult than ever. Conflicts of interest must be addressed clearly and swiftly in the media ethics codes throughout the industry before the lines become too blurred.

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