Wednesday, September 28, 2016

In Journalism, Friendship Creates a Conflict

Allison Cook

When the discussion of "Conflicts of Interests" comes up in journalism, it seems that we are mostly talking about bribes, gifts and ownerships. However, there is another conflict of interest that is more issue raises many questions with varied answers, depending on the type of relationship, the story or the news outlet.

The Situations
In a small town, it's hard not to run into the same people and it's even harder to keep your distance from everyone. The Canadian Association of Journalists (CAJ) article, "How close is too close?," put it like this: In smaller towns, the local news source can be seen as part of the community and "its journalists might even be expected to have many personal ties with those they cover."

It becomes tricky to have to report on people you live with, especially when it's bad news. Reporters may struggle with becoming extremely close to victims or their families, being scrutinized by other community members, being shut out by other local businesses, and with losing good former sources.

Howard Rosenberg of the Los Angeles Times wrote an article about a young journalist named Anna Song, who was reporting on the kidnappings and then murders of two middle-school-aged girls in a small town in Oregon. In the article, titled "A Journalist Breaks the Golden Rule," Rosenberg refers to the participation of a journalist in a story she is supposed to be observing as an outsider as the "golden rule." As journalists, we are not supposed to be a part of the story. We are supposed to stand back and watch the story play out. We are supposed to write down what we observe and then share it with the public.

In Rosenberg's article, Song gave a heartfelt and sincere eulogy in Oregon City's high school gymnasium, where many other community members spoke their condolences and shared their memories of the girls. According to Rosenberg, Song crossed a line. She had become too close to the people she was reporting on and began to involve herself in the story she was writing.

This problem goes further than this small town. As journalists we are supposed to be empathetic towards our mourning sources and we are told to step inside their world while reporting. By doing this, though, we are opening ourselves up to becoming too close.

The idea of losing sources and the trust of businesses or people who may be future stories also goes beyond small towns. In fact, any beat reporter seems to run the risk of becoming too close with the people he/she sees regularly and the people who have helped on previous stories. CAJ put it this way: "The 'beat system' of reporting, for instance, 'creates strong incentives to use or withhold information' to sustain needed trust by sustained sources."

This conflict of interest is particularly prevalent in the "music beat." In the SFGate, San Francisco Bay Area's news outlet, Dick Richardson wrote the article "Love Those Perks! / Critics Sound Off on the Ethics of Music Journalism," which is about how music critics are often too happy to accept the promo copies of CDs and free concert tickets and become too close with bands. This latter part is what I will be focusing on.

One of the music critics interviewed talked about the artists she knew on a first name basis. Her defense was that she didn't consider their relationship as a "friendship" since they didn't talk unless it was for work. Another critic claims that if he feels he's getting too close to a band he prefers to have someone else do the story. Richardson himself even commented on how "you can't be a truly involved music critic without developing relationships within the music community." And I think that's fair to say with any beat. You can't exactly get to the truth of a story until you establish a trust with a source, and trust is something that comes once you have begun a relationship.

Another beat example comes from NPR. Elizabeth Jensen wrote about NPR's long-time legal affairs correspondent, Nina Totenberg, and her very close relationships with some of the Supreme Court Justices. In this case, the conflict only arose after the passing of Justice Antonin Scalia. While the whole article was only sparked by one listener's question, Jensen was right to raise the question to all audiences.
Photo Credit: Kenneth C. Zirkel. NPR legal affairs
correspondent, Nina Totenberg.
The listener pointed out that it is the job of a reporter to present an unbiased account and he commented that he has now been forced to question the rest of Totenberg's accounts with other justices. Totenberg and NPR's standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, claim that she has been able to separate work from friendship. It was also pointed out that it's important for Totenberg, or any legal affairs beat reporter to build a relationship with the justices and judges in the court. Memmott said, "Our listeners and readers benefit (...) from what she has been able to learn about the justices over the years by getting to know them."
Photo Credit: Steve Petteway. 2009 Supreme Court Justices. The late Antonin
is seated fourth from the left. 
So where is the line? What can be and has been done about these conflicts?

Questions and Solutions
In each story presented, there was a response to the conflict of interest, but was it the correct thing to do?

The end of CAJ's piece lists five questions. These questions were "recurring questions that may helpfully be asked in order to identify the presence of a conflict relationship." Of these, the third stood out to me. It read: "How close and how current is the relationship?" In CAJ's opinion, the more recent and the more personal the relationship, the more problematic. This makes sense, because the more recent the relationship, the more likely it is for the lines to blur and the outcome to be more forth front. The blurring lines are due to the fact that the reporter is probably still building the connection and may not realize this source has become a friend. Feelings for someone take time and friendships don't happen over night. When it comes to a bad report, the journalist may be more hesitant because the relationship is so new.

Old friends tend to be the people who know you the best, and they also tend to be more understanding. New friends aren't there yet. It's easier to feel used and it's easier to break these relationships.

Next, CAJ gave five options in what to do once the conflict of interest has been established. None of these were to do nothing. The first was similar to what Song did, consult someone who has more experience or is above the reporter. The hope is that the higher up person has more experience and wisdom when dealing with these situations. This also allows for discussion that may prevent an ethical mistake.

In the small town case of Song, Rosenberg found out that she had asked her news director if it would be okay to speak at the memorial. While Rosenberg points out that she, being only in the field for a few years, did the right thing by going to her director, "a 20-year news veteran, should have known better." Her director compared what Song was doing to that of opinion writers, but there is and needs to be a strong distinction between opinion and news journalists.

In my opinion, if Song was going to speak she should not have been able to remain on the story. In fact, speech or not, she should have removed herself. The fact that she had developed strong emotions for those girls could prove problematic when reporting on the murderer's trial and the rest of the story's outcome.

The next two options in CAJ's article deal with the reporter removing him-/her-self either from the story or the relationship. It's more difficult to do the latter is the relationship is someone who is related to the reporter. CAJ even notes that this option may be "an obvious solution and one that will seldom be practical." The former option is a little easier to do unless the reporter is the one and only or the absolute best candidate for the story.

These options may work well in the beat cases. Such as, in the music beat cases. While different journalists had different responses, stated above, one did mention how he follows the option of removing himself. Richardson's solution was to acknowledge the conflicts as soon as they arise "and then act with confidence in your own personal integrity."

Of all the cases, NPR's solution was the most unsettling. Jensen found three options similar to the two CAJ mentioned. The news organization can talk with the reporter and tell him/her to back off the friendship, the organization can take the reporter off the beat, or "they can watch and wait." The latter, Jensen remarked, is what NPR did.

The final options CAJ mentioned deal with being up front with the audience. Disclosing the conflict and explaining why the reporter was still able to work the story, clearly communicates the newsroom's values and decision-making process. This option seems to be the best and easiest in most cases, yet none of the given examples did so. May be these examples wouldn't have come up if they had been upfront with their audiences.

Transparency has become key in today's society when dealing with the public's trust of the media, and especially when dealing with conflicts of interest.

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