Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Avoiding conflicts of interest as a journalist

Today I was once again approached by a canvasser working for an international environmental group. I told him, like I tell the others, that I’m a journalist and try to remain independent. I’m old school. That means I don’t donate to causes, sign petitions or join protest marches.

I write about those issues instead. (I am currently working on story on everyday toxins.) To do that with some perspective, I need to keep a distance and avoid conflicts of interest. It doesn’t mean I don’t have opinions. I have very strong feelings about the environment, the war, and a long list of other issues. And I'm a reader and occasional practitioner of advocacy journalism.

But, I also like to have a source of news about, say, abortion from a reporter who is not a member of either the National Right to Life Committee or NARAL. I still see the value of the good old, much-maligned straight news story.

You can debate this endlessly, like the guy on the corner wanted to today. The boundaries are all unclear these days since anyone with a blog or web page can call themselves a journalist now.

I don’t feel like I articulate my position very well, especially in Davis Square when I’m in a hurry. But, this story on journalists and campaign contributions by the ever-reliable Bill Dedman of MSNBC might make it clearer.

Journalists give campaign cash
News organizations diverge on handling of political activism by staff
By Bill Dedman
Investigative reporter
updated 5:07 p.m. ET, Mon., June. 25, 2007

...There's a longstanding tradition that journalists don't cheer in the press box. They have opinions, like anyone else, but they are expected to keep those opinions out of their work. Because appearing to be fair is part of being fair, most mainstream news organizations discourage marching for causes, displaying political bumper stickers or giving cash to candidates.

Traditionally, many news organizations have applied the rules to only political reporters and editors. The ethic was summed up by Abe Rosenthal, the former New York Times editor, who is reported to have said, "I don't care if you sleep with elephants as long as you don't cover the circus."

But with polls showing the public losing faith in the ability of journalists to give the news straight up, some major newspapers and TV networks are clamping down. They now prohibit all political activity — aside from voting — no matter whether the journalist covers baseball or proofreads the obituaries. The Times in 2003 banned all donations, with editors scouring the FEC records regularly to watch for in-house donors. In 2005, The Chicago Tribune made its policy absolute. CBS did the same last fall. And The Atlantic Monthly, where a senior editor gave $500 to the Democratic Party in 2004, says it is considering banning all donations.

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