In journalism, as in the administration of justice, appearances count.
One of the most basic tenets of any journalistic code of ethics is the principle that journalists must be diligent in avoiding both conflicts of interest and the appearance of any conflicts that could cause readers to question the integrity of the journalist’s work. These codes tell us that a journalist’s first loyalty is to the public and we must not use our privileged positions to serve our own or any special interests.
The Star’s conflict-of-interest policy has long held the Star’s journalists to this high standard of avoiding both conflicts and the perception of conflicts – a fair and reasonable expectation given that journalists hold public officials to high standards of behaviour.
The reality that perception truly does matter was made clear to me in looking into two recent suggestions of conflict of interest in work published in the Star. In both cases, I don’t see any evidence that the journalists involved distorted their work to their own interests.
But, in both situations, it seems to me that these journalists did not fully consider the imperative to avoid even the perception of a conflict by either stepping away from the assignment or disclosing to readers any facts that might lead to the perception of a conflict.
Earlier this week, reader Laura McMaster questioned freelance theatre critic Mark Selby’s review of the Acting Up Stage Company’s production of the musical Light in the Piazza after discovering that Selby was scheduled to perform at a cabaret evening being produced by that same theatre company.
“I do not understand how we can expect an unbiased review from someone who is working for the same company whose show he is reviewing,” McMaster said in an email, adding that she expects reviews in the Star to be “unbiased and without conflict of interest.”
She’s right to hold that expectation. In looking into this, I learned that Selby was booked to play piano at the cabaret production by vocalist Sara Farb, whom he often accompanies. Farb, not the theatre company, employed him and paid his salary, so this was not in fact a direct conflict.
Certainly there’s nothing to suggest that Selby’s review of the musical was affected by this connection. Still, given that readers did not know these facts, it is the perception of conflict in Selby’s three-star review of the musical that’s of concern here.
As well, Selby did not reveal this gig to entertainment editor Doug Cudmore. Had he done so, Cudmore could have directed Selby to disclose his association with the theatre in his published review.
But Cudmore says he would have gone further than that: “I think it’s not only important not to have conflicts of interest, it’s important to not even appear to have such conflicts, so had I known about this, such a review never would have gone ahead.”
The Star’s newsroom followed a similar course in acting to dispel any appearance of conflict of interest following the publication in November of sports reporter Mary Ormsby’s Page 1 exclusive report about the Toronto Leaside Girls’ Hockey Association’s accusations of gender discrimination in the allocation of ice time. That article prompted Mayor David Miller to order that Toronto’s public arenas ensure equal access to ice time.
Ormsby’s report, and her follow-up story the next day, did not disclose the fact that her 7-year-old daughter plays in the 900-member girls’ hockey league. This story was taken over by another reporter after editors became fully aware of Ormsby’s connection to the girls’ hockey league.
“When Mary alerted us to her involvement, she agreed to have the story assigned to another reporter,” said Ormsby’s editor, Alison Uncles.
Ormsby is a well-connected sports reporter who has covered local sports in Toronto for 30 years. Her extensive contacts have long served the Star well. She’s also a busy hockey mom who has two sons currently playing in the competitive Greater Toronto Hockey League, one of the boys’ leagues that will likely lose some prime ice time to accommodate girls’ house-league hockey. (A third son played in the GTHL for many years.)
Ormsby’s interest as an involved parent cuts across both sides of this issue and I think her reporting fairly reflected the various sides at play here. The articles were fair-minded, legitimate news stories that served no agenda beyond telling an important story that matters to many Toronto families.
While I think editors did the right thing in reassigning this story, it would have been prudent from the outset for Ormsby to have disclosed her connection to the girls’ league that was threatening a human-rights complaint against the city.
In our media-saturated world, where it’s likely any undisclosed facts will come to light, transparency matters greatly whenever there is any potential for a perception of conflict (as happened here when a columnist for another newspaper revealed Ormsby’s connection to the Leaside league).
Journalists are people, parents and participants in own communities, but our privileged positions demand that we remain alert to any situations that could create a real or perceived conflict of interest. And when in doubt, it’s always preferable to disclose.
This column was originally published in The Toronto Star on February 6, 2010.