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Wednesday, September 28, 2016
Interesting conflicts don’t justify overlooking conflicts of interest
There are dozens of ways a story could potentially pose a conflict of interest for a journalist. Perhaps the journalist knows a source personally, belongs to a group named in the story, or accepted a sticker, CD or cookie from a source. Maybe the journalist is an avid and obvious supporter of a team, actor, candidate or fishing tournament participant central to a story. No matter how uncommon or seemingly unavoidable a conflict of interest may appear, it’s never justified.
Free promotional materials and ethical implications of accepting them
The San Francisco Chronicle story about perks accepted by journalists covering the music industry mentioned promotional CDs as a necessary evil, and went on to reveal that these free CDs are often traded in at used record stores. This idea represents a serious conflict because it suggests media critics are profiting from free items gifted to them by potential sources.
Editors at the publications where I’ve worked have insisted any promotional materials (like CDs) that are necessary to write an informed story must be borrowed and returned or destroyed. This seems to me the best course of action because it clearly illustrates that the journalist is not in any way indebted to the provider of the promotional material.
It’s important to be transparent with potential sources and be sure that any person offering promotional materials in hopes you’ll cover their group or cause knows you can’t guarantee a story, and certainly can’t promise a favorable review. Transparency is essential to maintaining positive source relations.
When it comes to accepting materials from sources or protestors or random strangers pontificating on the street corner, I adopt a “better safe than sorry,” attitude and refuse these items altogether. In most cases, conflict of interest created by accepting promotional materials is avoidable. When it isn’t, destroying the materials after you’ve used them solves the ethical issue.
Publications covering a parent company
When a publication must cover a parent company, it is always necessary to include an editor’s note or other disclaimer that alerts readers to the relationship.
It is also the publication’s duty to cover good and bad news involving their parent company, as Good Morning America was ethically compelled to do this summer. Disney made headlines in June of 2016 for the grand opening of their Shanghai theme park and a devastating alligator attack at it’s Florida resort that left a toddler dead.
GMA covered the alligator attack extensively, and made the decision to replace some of their Shanghai grand opening coverage with news of the boy’s death.
ABC’s “World News” also prominently featured the gator incident and appropriately disclosed ABC’s corporate connection twice during their coverage.
This conflict of interest is often unavoidable, as is evident in the Columbia Journalism Review article, but transparency is key.
Political participation for journalists
The extent to which journalists can ethically participate in politics is constantly being evaluated by professional groups like SPJ and publications like NPR, as is showcased in this story.
Though it can be difficult, (especially during an election season) I’m not comfortable with any political participation beyond voting. Alicia Shepard of NPR and Jack Shafer of Reuters expressed similar opinions.
The election season policy for Ohio University’s independent student-run newspaper prohibits reporters from signing petitions, wearing political clothing and posting political opinions on social media among other things. It is easiest to report fairly and objectively if these actions are avoided.