Newsroom Insider: Disclosing Potential Conflicts

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Journalism has its share of ethical lapses and the routine assignment of unionized reporters to labor stories without disclosing those ties is one of the more problematic.

This practice flies in the face of the journalistic standards embraced by most business news organizations. They require that sources disclose their stock holdings when participating in financial stories impacting those investments and prohibit business reporters from investing in the sectors they cover.

How is union affiliation any different from these other potential conflicts?

It’s not.

This inconsistency is illustrated in a story from The Associated Press called “Union bargaining just a dream for many gov workers.” It’s a good story, which just happens to explore a topic useful to organized labor. The only problem with the story is that it fails to disclose whether the reporters are members of organized labor.

pressAP is a union shop and almost all its reporters are union members. So, it’s a fair question.

I’m not raising this issue to besmirch the writers of this balanced story. I have no reason to believe they are advancing personal agendas.

I’m simply saying that journalism is a public trust. As such, its practitioners should aspire to greater disclosure of potential conflicts. Instead of pretending they have none.

We’re in the truth business, both literally and figuratively, and we should have higher expectations for ourselves. They should include extending the disclosure practices of the financial desk to other departments in the newsroom when appropriate.

Balancing a story becomes as automatic as breathing for most good journalists after about 10 years. Most third-person reporters can produce a balanced story even when covering a topic in which they have a personal point of view without breaking a sweat.

However, the affiliations being balanced need to be better disclosed on topics that hit close to home. We need to embrace the same kind of transparency we demand of those we cover.

At a time when entertainers and political activists are camouflaging themselves as journalists, it’s not enough to assume the public understands that real journalists are different. We need to show them that a real journalist can handle any topic fairly, regardless of their personal views, instead of pretending we don’t have personal views.

shooterThis kind disclosure could be – to borrow a term from the business world – our added value. That little something extra that we bring to the job that elevates our work and helps to set us apart.

The routine disclosure of potential conflicts should be part of our covenant with readers to provide them with the information to reach their own conclusions, rather than manipulating them toward targeted conclusions as politicians do by engaging in sins of omission. T

That’s one of the key differences between real journalists and the entertainers and political activists who are now pretending to be journalists. Clearly, disclosure has applications beyond the business and labor beats. As do other ethical guidelines in journalism, like the informal prohibition on being politically active. However, some good rules continue to be confined to the beats that originate them in the absence of proactive newsroom leadership.

Any political reporter who is active in a local political club or seeks elected office faces big problems in the newsroom, even if their reporting is fair. The premise is that the perception of bias needs to be avoided. Yet, this very same rule of thumb is never applied to the faith of religion writers. Why not?

How can a religion reporter’s own religious affiliation not be relevant? Their ability to fairly cover all faiths is what makes them a professional and their knowledge of religion is what makes them an expert. Not the fiction that they have no personal beliefs on the subject. Yet we continue to conceal the existence of such personal beliefs.

presserWho does this concealment serve?

I maintain that it serves neither journalists nor readers. It fails journalists, particularly veteran journalists, by treating them us as cub reporters who cannot be trusted to act professionally. And it fails readers by making it harder for them to separate the real journalists who enthusiastically shoulder the field’s ethical demands from the pretenders who only embrace the benefits of journalistic status while shirking burdens like balancing stories.

Right now, we’ve got a world where professional journalists working in the third-person routinely pretend they have no personal veiws of any kind, while entertainers and political activists pretending to be journalists revel in their personal views and routinely advance them by manipulating the information they provide to readers.

What’s needed may be a new, modern guideline that encourages reporters to disclose relevant personal views and celebrates their ability to balance stories despite them. Disclosure of potential conflicts need not be limited to reporters. Anyone who writes a newspaper story for readers should be encouraged to own up to who and what they are.

bbgFor example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given a free ride by no less a journalism institution than The New York Times in a Feb. 27 commentary entitled “Limit Pay, Not Workers.” The Times allowed Bloomberg to opine that “rather than declare war on unions, (states and cities) should demand a new deal with them,” without ever disclosing that the privately held company he commands – Bloomberg LLC – has almost no union employees.

That little nugget should have been in there, especially since the wealth Bloomberg has generated from the company that bears his name has helped bankroll his political career.

We already provide this kind of disclosure for financial stories. Sources routinely are required to disclose their stock holdings when cited in stories that could impact the value of those investments. Financial reporters must meet similar requirements and most employers also preclude them from investing in the areas they cover.

Why should these lofty and appropriate expectations be confined to financial reporting?

We cannot and should not preclude labor reporters from belonging to unions, but we should encourage them to disclose those affiliations. This isn’t a tough fix. The organized labor status of reporters covering labor issues simply needs to be disclosed to readers at the bottom of those stories as I have done at the bottom of this piece.

Extending that philosophy to other sccnyections of the newsroom is going to be a lot tougher because there are plenty of instances in which it’s unnecessary. There are even some instances in which disclosure would be irresponsible.

For example, disclosing a reporter’s religious affiliation could put them in danger when they’re working in nations that are hostile to that faith. Let’s not forget that Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan largely because he was Jewish and working for a news organization based in the U.S. Not because his reporting was biased.

I cite this example because simple solutions rarely work. They sound good and they please imbeciles, but they don’t work because people game systems and life is complicated.

That’s why what journalism really needs is not a hard and fast disclosure rule, but a wholly voluntary guideline rooted in peer pressure. A disclosure guideline meant to be dented.

Withholding the religious affiliation of a reporter who would be endangered by that information could be one of those dents. I’m sure there are many others.
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Their existence should not prevent us from looking for opportunities to expand disclosure whenever doing so is appropriate.

The bigger question is why we’re even having this discussion at this time. It’s not like the printing press was just invented.

Asking a reporter who is covering labor issues to be forthcoming about their own union or non-union status is not unreasonable. Neither is asking a mayor and potential presidential candidate to disclose the non-union status of their own company when opining on the topic.

So, let’s start there. With disclosure that provides readers with information they need to better evaluate story merits and differentiate between real journalists and the posers that now plague the industry. Ultimately, that kind of transparency can be the difference for readers between being a manipulated news consumer and an empowered one.

See for yourself …

Victor Epstein is a veteran journalist who has never been a member of organized labor, but looks forward to the opportunity. He thought you might want to know.