Conflict of Interest
You can [get intimate with] an elephant if you want to, but if you do you can't cover the circus. -- The (Abe) Rosenthal Rule
A conflict of interest arises when someone who is
expected to act impartially has a personal stake in an issue (emotional, financial,
etc.). In every case, a conflict of interest is a real problem -- even if nobody misbehaves.
Thus, a lawyer who has defended a client in the past cannot be hired to prosecute that same client; a surgeon should not operate on a family member, and a reporter should not cover any news story in which he or she has a personal involvement.
It's still a problem even if nobody misbehaves and nobody means any harm.
If Mr. Brady agrees to judge a baking contest, and his housekeeper Alice enters the contest, both Mr. Brady's reputation as an impartial judge and Alice's reputation as a cook are at risk. Mr. Brady has a conflict of interest. Even if it turns out that Alice really does bake the best pie, and Mr. Brady honestly awards her the first prize, it may still look like the only reason she won is that she works for the judge.
Likewise, if the mayor's daughter uncovers a scandal on the city
council, readers will expect her to try to make the mayor look good. Even
if the reporter is completely thorough, readers will filter her words
through their understanding of the reporter's obligations to her
father, and thus the reporter's credibility may suffer.
In the summer of 2007, journalist Mirthala Salinas broadcast
a report that Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villariagoa had separated from his
wife. The problem? Salinas was the other woman. While it is
possible that she just showed up for work one day and someone just handed her
the story to read, her direct, personal connection with the story - or even the
appearance of a conflict of interest --
can damage the credibility of the whole news organization.
If your spouse works for ConglomCo Pharmaceuticals, and someone calls you up with a tip that ConglomCo is dumping illegal chemicals in the water reservoir, you should transfer the call to your editor. Even if the next thing the caller says is that aliens whispered the tip to him in a dream, if you hang up on him, it might look like you are protecting your spouse's job.
Often the possibility of a conflict of interest is less obvious, and the answer is "it depends."
At SHU, student-athletes are welcome to write for any section in the paper, including sports, but they cannot cover their own teams. Should someone whose roommate is a student government officer be assigned to cover a student government meeting? Should a non-catholic (who may have never attended a Catholic mass before) be assigned to cover the opening liturgy? On the other hand, would a cradle Catholic be disinclined to cover the reaction of the significant SHU population that is not Catholic?
Should a reporter with small children in daycare be assigned
to a story about a new scientific study on the effects of daycare on child development? Should an atheist cover a story that involves
religion? Should pack-a-day smokers cover health issues? Should pacifists cover wars?
As with the exaggerated quote about elephants, the point is not to control the reporter's off-the-job actions or personal beliefs; rather, the point is to ensure that the editor knows of any potential conflict of interest, in advance, so that a story can be reassigned or carefully vetted for signs of bias.