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Tuesday, October 4, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

Independence is the cornerstone of ethical journalism

By Kevin Z. Smith

As calls to the SPJ ethics hotline have come in over the past year, it’s clear to me that one area of ethics has distanced itself from the rest in terms of concerns, questions and complaints. That is conflicts of interest.

While much that needs to be said on this subject can be found in the “Act Independently” section of the SPJ Code of Ethics, the concept of remaining independent from outside influences seems to evade more and more journalists these days. And, having been in college classrooms the past 12 years, I can sufficiently testify that not only is the notion of independence being lost on many student journalists, but it’s being challenged by them as an outdated principle that needs a serious reality check in today’s world of the wired-in, entrepreneurial-minded, citizen journalism brigades.

Before we surrender the integrity of American journalism, we need to remember why independence is so important that it’s been a cornerstone of reliable, ethical journalism for a few centuries.

The Code says “Journalists should be free of obligations to any interest other than the public’s right to know,” and it is dyed into our code’s fabric for good reason: Looking out for any interests other than the public’s forces journalists to be committed to all things other than the highest standards for a free press and challenges our right to exist in a democratic society. When our Founding Fathers protected the press in the First Amendment, they did so to ensure the power remained with the people, not the elected representatives. In their minds, the best way to make that happen was to create an environment where an independent press could flourish for the benefit of the citizens, not the politicians and special interests.

If truth and fairness are the cornerstones of the democratic press, then any influences that sacrifice the obligation to the citizenry can do nothing but debase that very foundation. Truth and fairness are maligned, transforming news from what the public deserves to know and witness to what outside interests create as distorted and biased messaging.

So, the Code exhorts: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” It also insists, “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

You should also refuse gifts and special treatment and avoid political and social involvement that can compromise journalistic integrity, and you should disclose conflicts when they arise so the public has a fair understanding of how that may or may not shape truth and fairness.

Yet our hotline produces calls with stories like these:

• A reporter is provided an expense-free cell phone by the county sheriff’s office so she can better cover the crime beat.

• A freelancer writes a retrospective piece about the shoddy justice in that region but fails to reveal that he is engaged to a victim and a key source of his story. When vilified by the editor his response was, “I’m a freelancer and you have no right to pry into my personal life.”

• An anchor at a major network twice reports on a battle to remove horse-drawn carriages from New York City and interviews only sources advocating for removing the horses. Despite evidence that accidents involving horses are few, no one who can defend the system appears on camera. The anchor later appears as the keynote speaker at a fundraiser for the carriage protestors and donates money to the cause. She has yet to reveal her connection to the group.

• Citizen journalists working for hyperlocal websites may be asked to sell advertising to some of the same businesses they will potentially report on. In the case of the journalist in a small East Coast town, she didn’t just sell ads to a particular restaurant and women’s boutique, but she accepted free meals and gifts from the owners not to report on, or sell ads to, their competitors.

Avoiding conflicts can best be achieved by walking yourself through a quick set of questions that will help you develop a clear mind for how to approach your job as an independent journalist.

1. Does the greatest benefit of my work belong to the public or the source?

2. Would I see relevance in this story regardless of the involved characters and their influence?

3. Do I have biases or personal investment that will interfere in my reporting this story truthfully or fairly? What will this do to my reputation as a journalist and that of my company?

4. Am I willing to disclose all conflicts, real and perceived? What forum will I use?

From there you can seek further guidance by referring to the SPJ Code of Ethics or SPJ’s recent book, “Journalism Ethics, A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” or you can continue to call the ethics hotline at 317-927-8000 ext. 208.

Kevin Smith was the 2009-10 president of SPJ and is current chairman of the Ethics Committee.

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