Articles in the Spring issue of MEDIA ETHICS explored the ramifications of conglomerate ownership of the press. When the Federal Communications Commission loosened ownership limitations in June, the potential for corporate conflicts of interest limiting the range of opinions available to communities increased immeasurably. 1
This follow-up article focuses on what policies various news organizations have in place to prevent such conflicts. In sum, while news organizations have unambiguous rules designed to curb conflicts of interest on the individual level-i.e. reporters should not accept gifts from sources-they are silent on the larger conflicts that can compromise the civic integrity of the news organization itself.
Ombudsmen at several major news outlets agree that without a stronger commitment to disclosing news organizations' corporate connections-cross-ownership, subsidiary ownership, investment and lobbying efforts-news organizations will surely fall short of their civic duties, alienating readers and viewers and raising new questions about journalism's commitment to ethical practices and the public interest as media consolidation accelerates. 2
"Right now, I don't think we're disclosing as much as we should," says The Boston Globe's Christine Chindlund. "The Globe can't presume that the world knows its connections," which include being owned by The New York Times Company. Creating a comprehensive disclosure policy, though, would be a complex undertaking. Deciding when it is, and is not, necessary to disclose the Globe's interests would be dicey. "The key would have to be relevance," Chindlund says. "We have to ask, 'What does the reader miss by not knowing'" the paper's connection to a story? 3
The Knight-Ridder-owned Philadelphia Inquirer does have an extensive conflict-of-interest policy, but it applies primarily to staff members, who are forbidden from using their position at the paper for personal gain. 4
While the policy does not explicitly require that reporters reveal the role of the Inquirer or Knight-Ridder in stories they write, such conflicts are rare because neither entity has extensive connections outside of the news business, according to Ombudsman Lil Swanson. "As far as I know, Knight-Ridder owns some paper mills, but we don't own baseball clubs or office buildings" other than those that house the company's newspapers, Swanson says. Organizations that do have extensive corporate connections, she adds, are duty-bound to report them. "You must disclose," she says. "Otherwise you don't have an accurate and fair picture-you have a big hole." 5
Gene Foreman, a one-time Inquirer editor who wrote the paper's conflict-of-interest policy and now teaches journalism at Penn State, says media conglomerates consciously use their news divisions to promote and protect their larger interests. This striving for synergy, however, reduces the civic value of the news. "Disney doesn't understand that how they do synergy undermines the credibility of their news values," Foreman says. "And the lay reader doesn't realize all of the interconnections."
Foreman adds that if news organizations do not implement disclosure policies now, the need for them may be lost on future generations of reporters and editors. "I don't think they [news organizations] do it well enough. I only see it happening on occasion. One of my concerns is that as another generation of reporters and editors is brought up in a synergy environment, the importance of disclosure might get lost." 6
Mike King, ombudsman at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, whose parent company, Cox Communications, operates diverse and far-flung enterprises, believes his readers are better served when they understand the paper's connection to a story. "When Cox was in competition with Comcast to buy AT&T [Broadband], we disclosed every time," he says. Other cases, though, are not so clear-cut. "Should we disclose to readers of a general story on cable television that the paper is owned by Cox, which is a major player in cable television? I don't know that we do that. It does get a little murky." 7
As a quasi-public organization, National Public Radio does not have a parent company, but it does have corporate underwriters like Archer Daniels Midland, self-labeled "supermarket to the world," whose global interests influence everything from the cost of canned corn to foreign policy. When ADM found itself at the center of a price-fixing scandal, NPR reported it-and disclosed the agribusiness giant's financial support of public radio.
When ADM is in the news, "we say, 'Archer Daniels Midland, which underwrites National Public Radio,'" according to NPR ombudsman Jeffrey Dvorkin. Routine disclosure of corporate connections by commercial media, he adds, would serve the public interest. "There are a lot fewer independent sources than there used to be. The idea that there are a lot of independent journalists walking around out there is just not true, or at least not as true as it once was." 8
At the locally-owned Florida Times Union 9, sportswriters covering the continuing controversy over the all-male membership policy at the Augusta golf club, as well as editors who select wire copy about the story, face a tough situation: Publisher William Morris is on the Augusta board of directors. "We probably ought to mention that," Reader Advocate Mike Clark says. "I don't know how many times, but at least once." Clark says news organizations should disclose their interests when they touch upon news coverage. "It builds a sense of trust with the readers."10
Once gone, that trust is hard to recapture-a fact that is perhaps clearest to ombudsmen, who serve as the link between newsroom and public. As Lil Swanson puts it, "The most important thing we own is not the building and it's not the press; it's our credibility."
1 At this writing, both the House and Senate are considering measures to halt or modify the F.C.C. plan to roll back regulations limiting cross-media ownership. Meanwhile, the Third Circuit Court of Appeals has stayed the new F.C.C.-approved ownership limitations pending appeals.
2 Ethics codes, like the one authored by the American Society of News Editors, address disclosure, but an interest group code is not the same as an organizational policy. Regarding disclosure, the ASNE code states: "The newspaper should report the news without regard for its own interests, mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts...It should report matters regarding itself or its personnel with the same vigor and candor as it would other institutions or individuals. Concern for community, business or personal interests should not cause the newspaper to distort or misrepresent the facts...The newspaper and its staff should be free of obligations to news sources and newsmakers. Even the appearance of obligation or conflict of interest should be avoided."
3 Interview with author, September 16, 2002.
4 "Conflicts of interest," Philadelphia Inquirer policy manual, July, 1998, p. 3.
5 Interview with author, November 13, 2002.
6 Interview with author, November 13, 2002
7 Interview with author, December 16, 2002.
8 Interview with author, December 16, 2002.
9 The Times-Union is owned by Morris Communications Corporation, which is headquartered in Augusta, Ga. Morris Communications owns 26 dailies and 11 non-dailies with a combined circulation approaching one million.
10 Interview with author, December 16, 2002.
In Mike Dillon's sidebar, "The Ties That Bind: Synergy in the News," that started on p. 4 of vol. 14, no. 2, it indicated that The New York Times newspaper owned The Boston Globe newspaper. This is not the case, as both the Times and the Globe independently report to the parent New York Times Company. It was the parent corporation that tried to purchase a minority share of the Boston Red Sox last year, and not the Globe. The photo illustration on p. 4 should have been of a generic newspaper under restraint, and not an identifiable one.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Fall 2003 (15:1), pp. 18,43.