Conflicts of interest in the press

One of the top COI stories of the past week concerned how ESPN’s financial relationship with the NFL  may have caused it to withdraw from  collaborating on a documentary about the league’s dealing with players’ traumatic head injuries.  Earlier in the month another sports news COI  issue – whether John Henry’s purchase of the Boston Globe would impact that paper’s coverage of the Red Sox, which Henry also owns – received a fair bit of attention. So did the purchase of the another paper  – the Washington Post by Amazon’s  Jeff Bezos,  which raised somewhat weightier COI concerns than did the Globe purchase.  This therefore seems like a good moment to take a look at press conflicts.

As with many areas of business-related conflicts,  press conflicts exist on two levels: organizational and individual.  Organizational conflicts arise out of the press ownership – e.g., the concern with the Henry and Bezos acquisitions, and other financial relationships at the entity level, e.g.,   ESPN’s deal to broadcast NFL games,  including, most obviously, relationships with advertisers. Of course, the more that newspapers are part of larger business entities, the greater the likelihood of such risks will be. With individual COI’s the interest is usually at the reporter (or perhaps editor or producer) level.

Additionally, in discerning the relevant ethical framework for press COIs  it is important to consider the press’s critical role in maintaining our democratic society.  That is, given that trust in the press is essential to maintaining that role – like other “market failures” discussed in this recent post – preventing harm to that trust arguably should not be left totally to the push and pull of market forces.   This would suggest the need for a strong legal or ethical approach to addressing COIs in the press.

However, any legal response of this sort would be problematic as a form of interference with press freedom.  For this reason, the  ethical (and compliance) measures to prevent COIs in the press should be especially potent.

This is not an area about which I had much prior knowledge, but I was pleased to learn that the NY Times has what appears to be a good set of standards  regarding COIs.  For instance, regarding advertising COI, the Times’ standards provide: “Our company and our local units treat advertisers as fairly and openly as they treat our audiences and news sources. The relationship between the company and advertisers rests on the understanding that news and advertising are separate – that those who deal with either one have distinct obligations and interests, and each group respects the other’s professional responsibilities” and goes on to set forth detailed guidance regarding a number of contexts in which the paper’s advertising and news functions might need to deal with each other.  With respect to individual COIs, the same source provides guidance on a)  journalists paying their own way to and at events they cover, b) receiving of gifts and entertainment;  c) steering clear of advice giving roles; d) entering competitions and contests; e) collaborations and testimonials;  f) public speaking and the receipt of speakers fees; g) family-based conflicts; h) financial conflicts; i) free-lance work; j) dealing with competitors; and k) social media use.

The Times standards make an interesting read for one who spends a lot of time reviewing C&E policies and procedures.  Indeed, it would be rare to find COI policies as detailed as these in the great majority of industries.

Needless to say, the Times is not unique in this respect. The BBC also has what seem to be a very comprehensive and rigorous set of COI standards for its journalists.   Of course, just as the map is not the territory, sound ethical policy and procedures are not the same as a full-fledged compliance and ethics program.  But they are a good foundation for one.

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For information on the larger world of ethics in journalism (beyond that of COIs) visit the website of the Center for Journalism at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism.

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