Most readers of this magazine are painfully aware of cases of gross misbehavior by journalists. Even some big name reporters at prestigious news organizations have fabricated sources and quotations. They have also plagiarized, i.e., stolen the products of other people's labors. Journalists and news organizations have publicly engaged in self-flagellation over this rash of recent cases of corrupt conduct.
My purpose in this article is to attempt to put these misbehaviors into a meaningful context.
I think they are best understood to grow from moral conflicts of interest. Those conflicts are inevitable in professional life. They are an inescapable component of professional life in journalism-just as they are in the classical professions of medicine, law, and the priesthood. The reason is that the professional person, unlike the business entrepreneur, vows to act solely on behalf of patient, client, penitent, or audience. Single-minded and uncompromised devotion to the "client's" well-being is the hallmark of the professions, and that moral commitment is essentially what sets professional occupations apart from non-professional ones.
Journalism is a "profession" in the sense that journalists "profess" a moral duty to serve their audience by providing information and opinion that is as free as possible from the corrupting influence of the business interests of news organizations. Curiously, a professional's enlightened self-interest is always to forget about self-interest and pursue the interests of those she serves. One highly successful owner and publisher (I cannot remember who he is) once made that point this way: "We do not publish newspapers to make money; we make money to publish newspapers."
In what follows I am assuming the following definition of "conflict of interest": A conflict of interest in journalism exists when a journalist's commitment to serve audience interests is weakened, or risks being so, by the journalist's (or her news organization's) competing commitments and interests.
There are those in journalism who are deeply committed to neutralize self-interest while serving the interests of their audiences. Alas, there are other journalists who are so morally bankrupt that they pursue self-interest without regard to professional obligations. The former have discovered that while it is not impossible for professional journalists to hew to the professional line, it is excruciatingly difficult-in part because self- deception is so easy. Even the most conscientious practitioner has to be ever vigilant to serve the audience with information that is uncorrupted by the journalist's self-interest. The problem: It is difficult even to know our own motives, much less control them.
Then there are those who do not even want to follow the best professional standards. We have seen recently a number of spectacular cases in journalism in which individuals have fabricated and plagiarized. They were willing to steal to promote their own self-interest while lying to their audience. There is no way that a study of professional ethics can do anything about such corruption: Ethics is helpful only to those who want to do what is right and good. For those whose primary commitment is to themselves, professional ethics are irrelevant.
The journalist's "clients," the people we profess to serve, are the people in our audiences-readers/viewers/listeners. When journalists put their own interests above the interests of members of their audience, their inevitable conflict of interest can produce actual harm to those people they profess to serve.
Assuming, as I think we must, that conflicts of interest are inevitable, the moral problem we must deal with is how to minimize the corrupting influence of those conflicts. I believe there are three ways to deal with a conflict of interest: (1) get out, (2) recuse, or (3) disclose.
(1) Get out. Just avoid the conflict. Refuse the gift from subjects/sources. Don't join the special interest group. Don't write news. Change beats.
Avoiding the conflict altogether is sometimes a really good way to go, and it is often easy. You can just notify your benefactor that you appreciate the new Mercedes and that you have donated it to the United Way. That's easy. But it is not easy when you are the courthouse reporter and fall in love with the prosecutor. If you want to marry her you could obviously ask to be reassigned, but if your lifelong specialty is court reporting, your first love professionally and your area of special expertise, neither you nor your readers will be well served if you are reassigned to another beat.
Also, this option is usually not a workable choice if you work in a small news organization in a small community. You can nullify the freebie, of course, but reassignment is usually not an option in a small staff.
(2) Recuse. Keep your beat but let somebody else cover this particular story. In the courts this is the most common way for judges to avoid conflict, and in the judicial setting it works relatively well. There is always another judge who can do the job. Likewise, in larger news organizations there is also always another reporter who can cover particular stories. But most of the time this option is not feasible in small newsrooms.
(3) Disclose. If you cannot escape the conflict, and if recusal cannot work, then what? Let the audience know exactly what the situation is. Disclose your conflict and explain it. This was the choice of a number of news organizations, for example, when they wrote about Disney World. In the late '80s Disney paid for hundreds of reporters to come to Orlando where they were wined and dined. Many news organizations did not allow their reporters to participate at all, and many, but unfortunately not all, of those who did feed at Disney's trough told readers that the trip was paid for by Disney.
Disclosure is frequently the choice of lawyers in conflict of interest situations, for example, when called upon to represent both parties in a divorce. The 1992 conflict of interest standards of the American Bar Association and state bar association rules allow such dual representation upon full disclosure and client consent.
It is not necessary, especially in small shops, to give warning in every story. What is important is that readers generally know that the courthouse reporter sleeps with the prosecutor.
For the conscientious journalist, we need to ask: What is of utmost importance? The answer seems clear enough: Awareness by the journalist that a conflict exists. Knowing that, most conscientious people can write and edit copy that is not corrupted by the conflict. It is also true that knowledgeable readers are aware that conflict of interest is not totally avoidable in a world where real human beings have a variety of duties and personal commitments.
We can rejoice that, as a matter of fact, we can deal effectively with conflicts of interest in journalism and have good reason to think that misuse of public trust for private gain remains the exception, not the rule, in American journalism.
The above article was published in Media Ethics , Spring 2005 (16:2), pp. 7,21-22.