Monday, September 26, 2016

Warning: Conflict of Interest

Marisa Oberle

Conflicts of interest pose a serious threat to journalists' credibility. Without a strong ethics code, it's not uncommon for a journalist to become overwhelmed or cave to unethical behavior. 

Common Conflicts of Interest

In journalism, professionals face conflicts of interest on a daily basis. First off, a conflict of interest is "a situation in which there are competing professional, personal and/or personal financial obligations or interests that compete with the journalist's obligation to his outlet and audience." 

Almost anything can be considered a conflict of interest. However, there are some common ones journalists face every day. Those deal with private versus public interests, personal interests and being offered compensation for a story or for writing a story. 

An example of private versus public interest is the case study of the Pittsburgh Steelers story. Does the public have the right to know about the Steeler's quarterback role in a police investigation? Or is there too much potential harm to him and his family?

Personal interests often arise as a conflict of interest. However, too often journalists don't see it as a conflict of interest. Many journalists are related, married or have worked with top level executives in the Obama administration. Yet they continue to say they can police their own behavior. Some companies have removed journalists from covering stories where their conflict of interests lies, but it still often finds a way to influence the coverage. 

Journalists being paid to run stories or paying for stories has often been look down upon. However, that hasn't stopped some from trying and doing it. Oftentimes, it is in entertainment news. However, any trickle of the practice could be harmful for the industry as a whole. It could corrupt the whole process. 

By paying sources, it incentivizes other future sources. Why should they give you information when a competitor is willing to pay them $500 or more? The source is thinking, why not benefit from the information that I have.

And isn't the point of journalism to investigate what is going on in the community around you? Isn't the point of journalism mixed up when you start paying for information and stop looking into stuff yourself? 


The Codes Role

Codes of ethics, developed by media professional societies and media companies, are supposed to guide journalists to make ethical decisions. Ideally, when a journalist faces a conflict of interest, the codes should help them make a decision about what to do with that conflict of interest.

However, the codes offer little advice about how to deal with conflicts of interest.

The SPJ Code says journalists should "avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived," and "disclose unavoidable conflicts." However, a conflict of interest can't always be avoided. So what else can journalists do?

Journalists can disclose or even recuse themselves from a story. This acknowledgement shows that a journalist has developed some ethical behavior. Even if the conflict of interest is a super small, potential chance, it's better for a journalist to recognize that than the public realize it and accuse the journalist of unethical behavior.  


There is a common solution to the problems journalists face. The solution is simple: have a strong core of ethics. 

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