Nationally and locally, recent questions have been raised when news media report stories about themselves or their reporters.
These are questions about conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts.
In a Jan. 22 National Public Radio broadcast of ‘On the Media,’ a weekly analysis of news reporting, the topic raised a fundamental journalism ethic: ‘You are not the story.’ Network reporters who are also doctors provided some treatment of Haitians. In turn, they reported on that treatment.
The broadcast criticized the reporting as ‘obliterating objectivity.’ A Feb. 12 broadcast analyzed allowing a New York Times Jerusalem bureau chief to remain in his position after his son joined the Israeli defense forces. Could the reporter be objective and fair in reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
The Times executive editor, Bill Keller, made a judgment call that the reporter could ‘write fairly on the subject.’ He said that you ‘don’t remove a reporter because someone somewhere might consider it an appearance of a conflict.’ The Times public editor (ombudsman), Clark Hoyt, disagreed with Keller’s decision. He said that the bureau chief should be reassigned because there is an expectation of ‘disinterested coverage of one of the world’s most intense and potential explosive conflicts.’ The NPR interviewer suggested that there is an obligation to disclose the reporter’s family involvement. The reader, then, can decide whether or not there is possible bias in the news report.
Locally, three different Gazette reporters wrote stories about the proposed new Cedar Rapids Public Library site.
The Gazette Editorial Board stated that it was not taking a position because the company’s property was one of the possible sites. Gazette columnist Todd Dorman wrote a column that did not take a position. Editor Lyle Muller’s column explained why the reporters were covering the story despite the company’s financial interest in the selection decision.
So, The Gazette was reporting about itself on a major City Council issue but with apparent transparency.
Muller ‘s column stated that it ‘would not be responsible’ to refrain from reporting. His expectations for the coverage were ‘openness that our buildings are in the mix, be fair about all the sites and report what’s happening.’ In response to my follow-up questions, Muller stated that other media covering the story, citizen journalists and Internet commentators created ‘external checks and balances’ showing whether or not readers agreed that the reporting was fair.
External checks and balances work when there is full disclosure of financial or other interests that could result in biased reporting.
The financial questions were definitely covered, including The Gazette’s position on its assessed value for property tax purposes.
Muller said that using a freelance reporter would not have eliminated an appearance of a conflict of interest ‘because the story still would have been edited and presented by The Gazette.’ Like The Times executive editor, Muller’s judgment call showed confidence in the fairness of his reporters.
‘We relied on the professionalism of our existing staff reporter and editors, for whom we could answer if complaints had been made about our coverage,’ he said.
The Gazette newsroom has a code of ethics stating that each newsroom employee holds a position of trust. The goal: ‘Customers [will] assume that the facts are accurate and fairly presented; there are no hidden agendas in any journalistic undertakings; and attribution of material from other newspapers and other media must be total.’ A reporter or editor must ‘avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict.’ That is a tough standard for anyone and even tougher in this situation. It does, however, remind us of the strong ethic that print journalism brings to its news coverage. In the end, Gazette editors told their readers that a conflict of interest existed. The reporters explored the negatives and positives of all proposed library sites. Readers had the opportunity to weigh the potential of any bias in the reporting.
Since there was no torrent of negative letters to the editor on the subject, the reporters and editors apparently earned the confidence of their readers. It was a tricky road, but well done.
In the end, Gazette editors told their readers that a conflict of interest existed. … Readers had the opportunity to weigh the potential of any bias in the reporting.
‘We relied on the professionalism of our existing staff reporter and editors, for whom we could answer if complaints had been made about our coverage.’
This column was originally published in the Gazette on April 25, 2010.