Disclosure needed when reporting conflicts exist
By Victor Epstein
Journalism is an industry rife with internal ethical oversights and the routine assignment of union reporters to labor stories without disclosing their own ties to organized labor is one of the most problematic.
This practice flies in the face of other journalistic standards, like those requiring both sources and reporters to disclose their stock holdings when covering financial stories that could change the value of those investments.
How is union affiliation any different? The answer is simple. It’s not.
This exception caught my attention when I saw a story from The Associated Press this morning called “Union bargaining just a dream for many gov workers.” It’s a good story, which just happens to explore a topic useful to organized labor.
The only problem with the story is that it fails to disclose the reporters’ own union membership status. AP is a union shop and almost all its reporters are union members.
I’m not saying that something terrible has been done. I’m simply saying that journalism is a public trust in the U.S., which should aspire to greater disclosure and transparency. We should have high expectations for ourselves and the punishments for failing to meet them should be more modest.
The field’s proclivity for professionally executing all who fail to meet its rapidly shifting professional standards is problematic. This disproportionate punishment is the best indication that our industry is coming up short, because it’s meant to convey the fiction that unprofessional incidents are isolated and effective safeguards exist to prevent them.
Most third-person reporters can objectively cover a story in which they have a personal point of view. After about 10 years in the field, balancing a story becomes as automatic as breathing for most good journalists.
However, the affiliations being balanced need to be better disclosed on topics that hit close to home. Not disclosed across the board. Just better disclosed.
For example, I’m Jewish and I don’t think I would have any trouble balancing a story on neo-Nazis. Likewise, I don’t think I’d have any personal problems interviewing Adolf Hitler if he were alive unless he knew I was Jewish and was less forthcoming on that basis.
If I were covering those topics I would still opt to disclose my religious affiliation at the end of my stories even though I’m not a practicing Jew. The same should be true for reporters belonging to other religious faiths.
This kind of routine disclosure should be part of our covenant with readers to provide them with the information to reach their own conclusions, rather than manipulate them through sins of omission to reach targeted conclusions. Ulitimately, that’s one of the key differences between real journalists and entertainers/propagandists pretending to be journalists.
As long as we’re on the topic, it’s worth noting that I have never seen a religion reporter’s own faith disclosed at the bottom of one of their stories. Why not? How could a religion reporter’s own religious affiliation not be relevant?
Disclosure should not be limited to reporters. Anyone who writes a newspaper story for readers should be required to own up to who and what they are. For example, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg was given a free ride this morning by no less a journalism institution than The New York Times in a commentary entitled “Limit Pay, Not Workers.”
The Times allowed Bloomberg to opine that “rather than declare war on unions, (states and cities) should demand a new deal with them,” without ever disclosing that the privately held company he commands – Bloomberg LLC – has no union employees.
That little nugget should have been in there, especially since the wealth Bloomberg has generated from the company that bears his name has helped bankroll his political career.
We already provide this kind of disclosure for financial stories. Sources routinely are required to disclose their stock holdings when they’re quoted as experts in stories that could impact the value of those investments. Financial reporters are too, although most employers preclude them from investing in the areas they cover.
Why should these lofty and appropriate expectations be confined to the business section?
We cannot and should not preclude labor reporters from belonging to unions, but we should disclose those affiliations.
This isn’t a tough fix. The organized labor status of reporters covering labor issues simply needs to be disclosed to readers at the bottom of those stories as I have done at the bottom of this piece. All the time.
Extending that philosophy to other sectors is a lot tougher.
In fact, I intentionally used the religious example above because it creates problems.
Disclosing a Jewish reporter’s religious affiliation could put them in danger when they’re covering Neo-Nazis or working in nations that are intolerant towards Jews. Let’s not forget that Daniel Pearl was murdered in Pakistan largely because he was Jewish and working for a news organization based in the U.S. Not because his reporting was biased.
I cite this example because I abhor simple solutions. They don’t work, because simple solutions inevitably turn into lazy solutions.
However, simple guidelines do work, especially those that are meant to be dented.
The routine disclosure of a reporter’s potential conflicts of interests should be one of those guidelines. Withholding the religious affiliation of a reporter who would be endangered by that information could be one of the exceptions – or dents.
The bigger question is why we should even be having this discussion at this time. It’s not like the printing press was just invented.
Journalists shouldn’t wait until someone writes a story like this to explore potential conflicts. Instead, editors and reporters should take the initiative by disclosing potential conflicts whenever doing so does not create unreasonable burdens. Likewise, publishers should encourage them to do so.
Asking a reporter covering labor issues to be forthcoming about their own union or non-union status is not unreasonable. Neither is asking a mayor and potential presidential candidate to disclose the non-union status of their own company when opining on the topic.
These disclosures provide readers with vital information that allows them to better evaluate story merits. Ultimately, they can be the difference between being a manuipulated news consumer and an empowered one.
See for yourself …
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