20/20 #13: Where you are coming from: Transparency and conflicts of interest

Two statements about conflict of interest come from the New Standard Handbook and the Society of Professional Journalists. As you read through these statements, keep in mind these questions for discussion:

1) How are the two statements similar and different?

2) What do you think about what they say about journalists’ “associations and activities”? What are examples of associations or activities that could (a) compromise integrity or (b) undermine credibility? How far apart are these two tests?

3) As a citizen journalist, what are your biggest concerns about conflict of interest?

4) What kind of statement would you write to maintain transparency in your reporting? That is, what kinds of associations or allegiances would you want to disclose to the reader to maintain transparency?


Conflict of interest

(from New Standard Handbook, ©2006 by PeoplesNetworks)

In order to uphold the highest standards of fairness and accuracy and to maintain reader trust, you should make sure your independence is not compromised by any conflicts of interest. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest can undermine an important news story, so when you suspect such conflict or appearance, discuss the matter with your assignment editor.

To avoid conflicts of interest, you should:

  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or undermine credibility.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money and avoid bidding for source material.
  • Refuse fees, gifts and personal favors from sources.
  • Avoid special services or treatment from sources unless essential to the reporting of the article. Any such treatment – including housing, transportation or side-arrangements irrespective of gathering the story – must be disclosed to your assignment editor who may at the discretion of the editorial collective reveal the relationship to readers. You must also disclose to your assignment editor any personal or financial interests that potentially present a conflict of interest when covering a story.

TNS recognizes that there will sometimes be unavoidable conflicts of interest. Generally,

TNS prohibits journalists from writing about institutions (political parties, labor unions, social organizations, etc) where they are employees, active members or consultants. In the case that such relationships exist, such information should be disclosed to the assignment editor before you begin pursuing a story.

Ex. For a story reported by a person active in the low-power radio movement, the writer would notify editors about this relationship during the query process, discuss guidelines for reporting conduct, and add a note such as the following note to the final article: The reporter is a member of the Columbus Community Radio Foundation, a non-profit media advocacy group that is launching a low-power radio station in Columbus, Ohio.

A pre-existing viewpoint is not a conflict of interest. The reporting process will not necessarily be compromised just because you have strong beliefs and opinions. If you are aware of holding a previously formed stance on the issue; are open-minded during the news-gathering process and consider positions and claims from diverse perspectives; and take care to test claims by all parties against evidence, then you can report fairly on that topic.

Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

Act Independently

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

  • Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
  • Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
  • Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
  • Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
  • Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
  • Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
  • Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

Bonus discussion question: Some journalists say that, in order to be truly objective, they will not vote. What do you think of this position? 

©2008-2009 Mary Turck