Professionalism and conflicts of interest

Last Friday, Dylan Byers’ Media Blog in Politico announced a new Conflict of Interest Series, noting:  “Almost everywhere you look there’s someone in the media who’s ever more connected with the subjects they cover.”  The Media Blog has indeed covered a number of potential COIs in this industry, including, most recently, those involving  Stephanie Cutter  and Newt Gingrich .  While the specific topic of media COIs is, of course, noteworthy (and was indeed the subject of a recent post  in these pages), more intriguing to me are the questions of why there should be a growing number of actual or perceived conflicts of interest involving journalism and what, if anything, should be done about it.

While it is conceivable that the reason for this possible increase in journalism-related COIs is that there are simply more media organizations than ever before – assuming that the number of cable TV and internet news sources has more than offset the steep decline in the number of newspapers – I think that the cause lies elsewhere: the involvement in journalism of individuals who are not professional journalists (as evidenced by the two examples cited above).  Such individuals are not only more likely to have other (and potentially conflicting) interests than are full-time journalists, but they are also more likely to lack the ethical grounding relevant to their work that hopefully comes with being  a professional.

This may sound snobby, but I should emphasize that I am not suggesting that professions consist  only or even mainly of members of the ethics nobility.   Indeed, over the past two years this blog has run numerous posts on ethical failures in various professions – including auditing, financial services , medicine , economics,  law (my own profession) and even dentistry.  Moreover, it is possible that the phenomenon of “moral compensation”  – the behaviorist notion that moral behavior on one occasion can license other immoral behavior – has an adverse impact on ethics by professionals, i.e., the feeling that one is being ethical by following professional standards might make it easier to be unethical with respect to issues not clearly covered by such rules (although I should stress that I have not seen “moral compensation” studies addressed to this specific context).

But being in a profession does align one’s economic interest with professional ethical standards, in that the failure to abide by such standards creates more risks to the individual than it would for outsiders.  Indeed, in a fascinating discussion last week led by Steve Priest  at the annual conference of the Ethics & Compliance Officer Association it was evident that the emerging profession of C&E itself could benefit from a body of enforced professional standards.

And if there is a positive correlation between professionalism and ethicality (as on some level there must be) the type of shortfall discussed above in connection with media conflicts should also be of a concern in other contexts.  An example of this might be the recent case from the UK  in which  a Big Four accounting firm took the position that its employees engaged in non-audit work needn’t be guided by the profession’s ethical standards – a pernicious view given the confusion that this could cause to those who  dealt with the firm and one that justly helped earn the firm a record breaking fine from the Financial Reporting Council.   

But it would be impossible to hold back whatever are the tides that seem to be causing an influx of non-professionals into some types of profession-based organizations.  For this reason, entities that employ both sorts of workers should protect themselves – and those who rely on their presumptive professionalism – through implementing C&E programs (meaning more than just codes of conduct) that not only help to instill professional values through the entire workforces and but also to exercise resolve in enforcing those standards.

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